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Carolyn Stetson's review of 'Sombrero Falliout'
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Stetson Stunts | Sombrero Fallout

by Carolyn Clay?

Beneath the golden arches of Richard Brautigan's imagination, Mark Twain? and Tim Leary? might meet for a burger. In Brautigan's droll, truncated "novels" (Trout Fishing in America, The Abortion, The Hawkline Monster) surreal whimsy and violence coalesce in junk-culture. Sombrero Fallout, about the heartbreak of an American humorist and what happens when an ice-cold sombrero drops like a heavenly bomb into the seemingly calm of the heartland, is marked by the old Brautigan charm and the old Brautigan tricks, the plethora of bizarre, precious imagery that delights the stoned. Brautigan's consciousness remains as all-accommodating as over-taxed elastic. Like Mary Hartman's?, his frame of reference includes no scheme of graduated importance: mayhem, lost love and the mercury level in tuna fish are examined with the same curious detachment and articulated with the same whacked-out logic.

Though talented, Brautigan tends to sell himself cheap. He dreams one apt, if peculiar metaphor, then amplifies it to even great absurdity - but not, thankfully, past the threshold of tedium. Like Kurt Vonnegut's?, Brautigan's charm lies not in his thinking - which is often banal - but in his style. Certainly the syntax is unique: "She was never going out with another writer ... They were like having a vacuum cleaner around that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it. She wanted her next lover to be a broom." Brautigan shuffles odd imagery with chatty reflections on the mundane. The amalgam is intriguing: "Despair suddenly fried his brain into thousands of pieces of dancing bacon"; "His cousin looked as if he had been slapped across the face by a shark"; "He tried to banish the tuna fish sandwich from his mind but it refused to leave. It clung there like a barnacle to an Ethiopian battleship."

Like tuna fish, art apparently has a mind of its own. It is around this Unamunesque? precept that Sombrero Fallout is wrapped. A very neurotic American humorist (Brautigan?), rendered a blubbering basketcase by the departure of his Japanese love, begins work on a strange sci-fi tale about a gelid sombrero that swoops down on a tiny town, landing at the feet of its mayor, his politically ambitious cousin, and an unemployed person desperate for a job and/or a hamburger. It is "10:15 in November" when the writer reaches "into the typewriter as if he were an undertaker zipping up the fly of a dead man" and removes his sombrero scribblings. He shreds the paper and deposits it in the wastebasket where the crumbled pieces proliferate and the sombrero incident mushrooms.

Incapacitated by his Armour Star despair, the writer spends a reverential hour fondling an Oriental hair found in the sink. (Since the Japanese woman left him a month ago, one shudders at the humorist's housekeeping habits.) While he agonizes over what to eat and whether to call his love, screw a stewardess or just snap out of it, the Eastern beauty, with midnight hair of which her black cat seems a suburb, sleeps but blocks away, dreaming of Kyoto or Seattle. And in the wastebasket the small town goes berserk, the discovery of the sombrero resulting eventually, if not coherently, in armed insurrection against the United States government. Clearly the humorist's feelings of impotence and his helpless suffering are somehow assuaged by the bloody action-saga in the trash. Beyond that, the uprising seems intended as a tongue-in-cheek political cartoon. War clichés and the rhetoric of statesmanship abound.

Sombrero Fallout is an amusing but slight fantasy - unless, of course, one is stoned enough to start interpreting the hieroglyphics on Oreos. Incidentally, after the revolution and the President's effort "to heal the nation's wounds," the mysterious sombrero inexplicably changes hue and the American humorist pours his heartbreak into a C&W ditty. Far out.


Boston Phoenix
September 21, 1976: 15, 23.


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