Michael Harrington's review of 'An Unfortunate Woman' and 'You Can't Catch Death'
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Autobiography Could Lead To Revisiting Brautigan's Work

by Michael Harrington?

Richard Brautigan now seems as antique and quaint as the thrift-shop clothing he affected on the covers of his books, an author whose idiosyncratic, eccentric novels were required reading for 1960s youth, but whose cultural importance seems to have faded with the times.

We may remember his work with affection, but there's the feeling that he is one of those writers best loved when one is young, before the disenchantments of age sharpen the critical eye.

Brautigan came out of nowhere, selling 2 million copies of his novel Trout Fishing in America (1967), riding the wave of the counterculture to success as the essential hippie novelist. He enjoyed a half-decade of success, then suffered a slow decline for another decade, a victim of changing fashions and his own alcoholism.

In 1984, Brautigan committed suicide, shooting himself to death in his home in Bolinas, the holdout hippie enclave just north of San Francisco. He was 49, and if he is not exactly forgotten (most of his books are still in print, albeit in omnibus editions), his heyday certainly passed with the advent of the yuppies. Now, his novels are packed away in the attic with the tie-dye shirts and Strawberry Alarm Clock albums.

The best thing about the publication of An Unfortunate Woman, an autobiographical novel found among Brautigan's papers, is that it may lead to a rereading of his works and a reassessment of his place in the American literary canon. There is little else to recommend it, except to committed fans.

An Unfortunate Woman is the record of an obsessive writer winding down, slowly losing faith in his abilities. It's like reading a suicide note disguised as a novel.

In 1982, the fictional Brautigan sets out to fill a 160-page notebook, writing daily, creating "a sort-of free-fall calendar map" as he travels back and forth across the country, to Canada and Hawaii, pulled by speaking engagements, teaching assignments and love affairs.

But gradually his plan falls apart. First there is a gap of nine days in his writing schedule, then 14, then 111. Repeatedly, he apologizes to the reader "please bear with me," he writes early on, and then "please have patience with me," later, and finally: "Obviously I'm not very good at this."

But he once was good, very good. Trout Fishing in America is more than a hippie reverie; it's a peculiarly American classic, Hemingway? put through a Beat? blender.

Brautigan was no one-book wonder: The underrated dystopian fantasy In Watermelon Sugar (1968) may actually be his best book. Arguments could be made for including in the canon as well the losers-on-the-lam comedy A Confederate General From Big Sur (1964), the Gothic western The Hawkline Monster (1974), and some of the stories from The Revenge of the Lawn (1971). Four good books out of 12: an admirable record for any author.

You Can't Catch Death, Ianthe Brautigan's earnest, harrowing memoir of her father, is mostly valuable for its details of his life. Still a small child when her father became successful, she had the kind of unpredictable childhood one might expect, enduring his drunken rages, late-night phone calls threatening suicide, random acts of destruction (smashing furniture, shooting the clock off the wall of his Montana home and burning all the telephones in the fireplace), as well as enjoying the time he spent with her looking at clouds and planting daffodils.

This was the cycle of our lives, dark, lonely despair one day and the hope of daffodils the next," she writes.

Brautigan's novels may have been unique, but his story was sadly familiar: Artistic success is insufficient to make a success of life.

Chicago Tribune?
September 12, 2000

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