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Richard Brautigan's The Hawkline Monster

by Chris Flynn

In 1967 the American writer Richard Brautigan wrote a letter to his literary agent about plotting to write a Western novel, saying 'I've always wanted to write a Western and so that's what I'm going to do.'
The result was The Hawkline Monster, published in 1974.
Richard Brautigan's writing is identified with the 1960s counter-culture movement.
This March, The Hawkline Monster is being republished, and Chris Flynn, editor of Torpedo literary magazine, re-read this unusal western for the Book Show.

The fact that Hawkline Monster is once again seeing the light of day is good news as far as I'm concerned. One of my favourite unsung cult authors, Richard Brautigan has largely been out of print for decades. Aside from a run of success in the late sixties/early seventies, his body of work has been neglected by commercial publishing. His most famous novel, Trout Fishing in America, sold over 2 million copies in its heyday, yet today is virtually impossible to find on the shelves of even the best used book store. As a kid I first discovered one of his books in a café my mum and dad took me to in Belfast and over the years have amassed a pretty complete collection, though I'm loathe to lend them out. They tend not to come back. The critics hated him. Savage reviews singling out his naivety as a writer led eventually to depression, alcoholism and a bleak and lonely suicide in 1984. But, with 2009 being the 25th anniversary of his passing, a resurgence of interest of his work was probably inevitable and several new editions are due out this year in the US and Australia.

First off the block is Hawkline Monster. Brautigan conveniently explains what it's all about in the subtitle 'A Gothic Western', a tic he employed with several of his novels also using terms like 'a perverse history', or 'an historical romance'. Set in Oregon in 1902, the story here concerns Cameron and Greer, a pair of disgruntled and dirty cowboy assassins of fairly dubious character. Their skills with a variety of weapons are put sorely to the test when they are hired by Miss Hawkline and her identical twin also known as Miss Hawkline to destroy a terrifying monster that lives in the ice caves below their remote homestead. This powerful creature came into being when an experiment their father was working on in his laboratory, named 'The Chemicals' went badly wrong. The professor was consumed by the monster and now it wants the daughters. It's your standard gunslingers versus creature from the id tale. In fact the only comparison that can be made with anything else you're ever likely to have read or seen would be the classic sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, or even Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Of course, there are a few major differences. Hawkline is liberally peppered throughout with sex and violence as the shockingly uncouth cowboys swear, kill and rut with everything in their path. Greer and Cameron enter into a confused sexual tryst with the Hawkline sisters, which understandably distracts them from the monster dispatching task at hand. Combine this with an inconvenient giant dead butler, an eerie mist that controls the mind, a subterranean science lab straight out of Frankenstein and an obsession with how miserable Hawaii really is and you're starting to get the picture. Brautigan's skewed narrative clips along nicely, employing his usual technique of very short chapters to retain your interest. His use of metaphor is as satisfying and witty as always, guaranteeing a grin or shake of the head from readers as you wonder how he ever came up with such phrases. He describes the Dead Hills as looking like, 'an undertaker had designed them from leftover funeral scraps' and the road that runs through them like 'the handwriting of a dying man.' All evidence of the mind of a very unusual writer at work, one that defied classification really and in many ways was doomed to obscurity by an establishment that simply didn't know what to make of him.

The Hawkline Monster is an easy to read, strange experience that lingers in the mind long after the amusing final chapter that tells you what happens to the characters over the course of their lives. If you know Brautigan, you will surely want this great new edition for your shelf. If you don't, this is as good a place to start as any but be warned, you will be opening a door to a cult writer who has stood the test of time a lot better than anyone thought he would. Brautigan can be addictive and you'll struggle to find his books. Oh, and before you ask, no, you can't borrow mine.


The Book Show?
February 24, 2009

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Copyright note: My purpose in putting this material on the web is to provide Brautigan scholars and fans with ideas for further research into Richard Brautigan's work. It is used here in accordance with fair use guidelines. No attempt is made regarding commercial duplication and/or dissemination. If you are the author of this article or hold the copyright and would like me to remove your article from the Brautigan Archives, please contact me at birgit at cybernetic-meadows.net.