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Lawrence Ingrassia's article about the Brautigan Library
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A Fictional Library Becomes a Real Place With Unreal Fiction: Much is Novel at Brautigan's, Where the Unpublished Go to Find Immortality

by Lawrence Ingrassia?

"I don't know how to break it to you, but you've got a pretty far-out operation going on here. This library is a little on the whacky side."
-- Richard Brautigan, The Abortion

Burlington, Vermont. — As the inspiration for the Brautigan Library, the only library in America exclusively for unpublished books, the late author knew what he was talking about.

Let other libraries stock "Death of a Salesman," "Lord of the Flies" or "Lassie Come Home." Nowhere else but here can you find "Sure Beats Watching Trains," the tale of a "burned-out shoe salesman ... overtaken by an alien persona." Or "Theories of Father," a "video-image-script-novel narrated by a house fly, with help from Ed Sullivan." Or "Rory Stories, Vol. 1": the "humorous adventures of a talking Shetland sheepdog named Rory O'More."

No, at the Brautigan Library you will never find a book that is on the bestseller list or even at your favorite bookstore.

A Kind of Intimacy


But so what? Says Sheri Vance of Salt Lake City, Utah, a visitor to the library, "There is some really horrific writing, but that's what's sort of fun. The pleasure of reading the stuff is really the pleasure of being a voyeur. There is an intimacy to it that you don't have with a book that is published."

Which is just what Todd Lockwood envisaged when he re-created the fictional library-of-the-unpublished described by Mr. Brautigan in "The Abortion." "We're trying to encourage works that share something personal," says Mr. Lockwood, a 40-year-old, long-time Brautigan fan who also runs a recording studio here. "To get beyond the notion of traditional publishing, we're going to get lots of not-so-well written novels. But we're getting interesting, idiosyncratic works."

Keeping with the spirit of Mr. Brautigan, even some of the authors see the humor of the place. In a letter mailed with his opus "Oedipus in America," an "adventure of misplaced libido," David Lee Johnston wrote, "I hope this book is worth including. If not, please damage it beyond repair."

Mr. Brautigan himself, though an icon of the 1960s counterculture, was never taken seriously by much of the literary world. His best known novel, "Trout Fishing in America." which sold two million copies, is often mistakenly stocked in the sports sections of bookstores, although it's not about fishing. It's about America.

Indeed, not everyone thinks the library is such a great idea, even as a memorial to Mr. Brautigan, who committed suicide in 1984. Garry Trudeau refused to become a trustee, contending that there are too many good published books to waste time "poking through unpublished materials." Kurt Vonnegut's agent "burst out laughing" when informed of the idea, Mr. Lockwood says. But Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry's ice cream is on the advisory board. So is author Thomas McGuane.

The nonprofit library greeted its first visitors a year ago in a long, narrow room in the back of a building that houses the Vermont Institute of Massage Therapy. It is a frugal, offbeat place, staffed by volunteer librarians and furnished with chairs that don't match (as required by its by-laws). Only open on weekends, the library is for readers; books can't be checked out.

Nor does the library use Dewey Decimal System for cataloging books. Instead, it runs on the "Mayonnaise System," which allows authors to place their works in categories like "Meaning of Life." (Mr. Brautigan ended one book with the word mayonnaise because, he noted, he always wanted to.)

And it is one library where the cliché "you can't tell a book by its cover" is true, literally. All manuscripts get a blank binding in one of five colors. Authors pay a fee of $50 a book, for the binding and to cover expenses, like rent.

The Brautigan isn't the only unusual library in the country, of course. There's the American Nudist Research Library in Osceola County, Fla., where all the books are about nudism, but nudity is optional; the Library of Natural Sounds, at the Oakland (Calif.) Museum, featuring recordings of insects, birds, mammals and thunder; and the American Philatelic Research Library in State College, Pa., which offers 60,000 publications on stamps.

By contrast, what the Brautigan lacks in quantity — it has only 180 books, so far — it makes up in variety. Its shelves offer everything from steamy erotica to poetry to children's books to a master's thesis ("Theory, Design & Application of a Photocombustion Reactor"). Works range in length from two pages (actually, two half pages) to 600 pages long, and they're written by bus drivers and hairdressers, corporate types and teachers, including some who worship Mr. Brautigan and some who have never heard of him.

Many have been snubbed by publishers. "I've been rejected by the best and the least," boasts Melvin Spivak, a short-story writer ("Fantasies II"), ex-dishwasher and ex-security guard. A. Alexander Stella, an electrical parts inspector and unpublished author, says of the library, "It's probably my one hope to achieve immortality."

The most prolific contributor is Albert Helzner, a retired engineer from Marblehead, Mass., who has sent in 20 books, mostly eccentric musings about life. In "Some Observations About the World," Mr. Helzner (who like reclusive author J.D. Salinger declines to be interviewed) describes a day in the lives of two wildebeests named Fred and Charlie: "Plenty of food here. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. Looks safe, but I'll keep my eyes open for lions... Boy, this is good eating... They caught me. Help me, Fred. I can't shake them. I'm down. One's got me by the thr..."

Some of the fiction is equally, uh, zany. John H. Sullivan's "Dead Lines" is about a "smart but raunchy, married and womanizing newsman" who is having an affair with his editor's wife while the editor (a former all-pro football player) is having a homosexual affair with the town mayor. After their first tryst, the newsman tells the boss's wife: "I'll always remember tonight as my Super Bowl of sex." Mr. Sullivan, a 76-year-old retired press officer under former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, says the plot "just came out. I would sit down and say, 'What would these characters do in this situation next?' I didn't plan it."

But, if some of the works are a bit camp, others are touching and personal, written by people who don't much care whether they get published or not. There is a collection of poems written by a now-deceased mother and submitted by her daughter, memoirs of an elderly cancer patient living out his days in a convalescent home and the remembrances of a Pennsylvania teenager who realized his dream of becoming a cowboy in Wyoming during the Depression.

"Dying According to My Mom" is handwritten by a nurse, in a child's voice, to prepare her four-year-old son for an older brother's death. In "Another American Journey," the author tells of quitting his job at age 40 and traveling 22,672 miles in a van to all 48 states in the continental U.S., over 13 weeks, 5 days, 9 hours and 23 minutes. "I saw a highway stretching to a distant horizon, around a mountain curve, beside a flowing stream, along an ocean beach, through a fragile desert," he writes.

Having a place for books like this, where people pour out their hearts, say the library's fans, is what Mr. Brautigan had in mind. Says May Janko, 65, who sent in a children's book after it was rejected by innumerable publishers: "It has a home. In my mind, it's someplace, and that's a good feeling. It's not in oblivion."


The Wall Street Journal?
May 28, 1991



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