Dennis Lynch's tribute to Brautigan
Flash player not available.

Tribute to a friend and the books that might have been

by Dennis Lynch?

The unexpected death of a respected writer evokes our sadness for the loss of life and for the loss of books that might have been. In the case of Richard Brautigan we can console ourselves with 16 volumes of prose and poetry, including his most recent work, "So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away." The ominous opening line of that haunting novel: "I didn't know that afternoon that the ground was waiting to become another grave in just a few short days" reverberates with eerie significance.

On the shelf above my desk sit those 16 volumes, the legacy of Richard Brautigan. His sometimes sad-eyed and sometimes bemused face looks out from the covers of "Trout Fishing in America," "In Watermelon Sugar" and "The Abortion." It is painful to think that Brautigan's shelf cannot grow much larger.

The details of his death are just as upsetting. It is difficult to reconcile the image of the warm, vibrant man I knew with the cold, stark facts of his death: discovered on Oct. 25 in his home in Bolinas, Calif., a .44 magnum pistol by his side, his body so badly decomposed it took dental records to confirm its identity. Authorities estimated that he had taken his life about five weeks earlier.

People who know that I was a friend of Brautigan have approached me recently to ask the obvious question: Why did he do it? And why, they wonder, did the fact of his death go undiscovered for so long? Is it possible that the disappearance of so well-known a man could go undetected for five weeks?

It is the second question to which I respond. The first will be asked and answered many times over in the literary biographies that will follow the man: The details of his personal and professional life will be exposed and analyzed for clues to the motive. And explanations will certainly be offered. But like the narrator of "In Watermelon Sugar," who when asked to comment on the suicide of another character can only respond, "I don't know," I too am reluctant to search for easy answers.

Already, though, the myth is forming around his death: Hippie writer becomes cult figure in '60s, flops in '70s and kills self at 49 in '80s. This myth appeared in virtually all of the death notices. One friend of Brautigan's — in a line I think he would have appreciated — said that if the author had been around to read his obituaries, he certainly would have killed himself.

Tom McGuane? was quoted as saying, "When the 1960s ended, [Brautigan] was the baby thrown out with the bath water." Yet Brautigan's greatest financial success came not with the early novels but with "The Hawkline Monster," published in the mid-'70s, and his most well-received book of poetry, "June 30th, June 30th," came even later. Worldwide, he told me, his books have sold about 7 million copies.

Nonetheless, Brautigan took seriously the critical commentary on his books and let negative remarks trouble him. He could never fathom why some reviewers found fault with how frequently he published. He told me that in Japan readers want as much as they can get from their writers. "Some of the best authors publish three or four books a year. Here, each book has to be a 'big book,' a 'long-awaited novel.'"

One thing some critics certainly have wrong is their association of Brautigan with the hippie counterculture. He was in fact about as unhippie as you can get. He never used marijuana or psychedelics, nor was he politically active. His attire — usually a T-shirt, jeans jacket, denims and boots — and his demeanor were more Western than cosmic. Brautigan was amused as well as chagrined that critics saw his books as expressions of the hippie era. In fact, the bulk of "A Confederate General from Big Sur" was written by 1961, and "Trout Fishing" was virtually complete by 1964, years before Haight-Ashhury and
flower power.

Some of the reports of his death implied Brautigan killed himself because he fe1t washed up. Though he could lose his temper with the critics, I never saw him lose faith in his talent. Like his hero Hemingway?, he spent part of every day writing, and he produced lean works in which every word fit and not a single word was wasted. To do the seemingly impossible and to make it appear easy "to load mercury with a pitchfork" is the writer's job, Brautigan's work tells us, and he was a master of that art.

What Brautigan was unable to master was his personal life. He ran away from home in his mid-teens and never returned; both of his marriages ended in divorce; and his only child lived thousands of miles away. Though his acquaintances were legion — including movie directors Francis Ford Coppola? and Sam Peckinpah?, actor Clint Eastwood? and singer Jimmy Buffet? — his close friends were few. He suffered from a profound loneliness and kept trying to bridge the gulf separating him from others.

His efforts were erratic. It was not uncommon for months to pass without a word from Brautigan; and then he would call six times in a week, or three times in a night. He loved to "drink and dial," as he called it, and anytime my phone would ring after 3 a.m., it was sure to be Brautigan on the line with a bottle of Jack Daniel's, calling from Montana or San Francisco or Japan, unable to sleep.

Related to his loneliness were the difficulties of his love life. "The dice of love are madness and melees," reads the epigraph to "Willard and his Bowling Trophies." Like Margaret, the character of "In Watermelon Sugar" who committed suicide, Brautigan suffered from a broken heart. His second divorce a couple of years ago was especially bitter; mere mention of his ex-wife was enough to enrage him.

But to suggest that Brautigan died of a broken career or a broken heart is to oversimplify the motivations of an extremely complex man. Just as Brautigan's work resists pigeonholing, so will his death. Brautigan lived a life of fantastic contradictions; for him the extremes were the norm. He could spend about $20 a year on clothes, but $1,000 a month on phone calls. He counted among his friends not only distinguished Japanese poets but members of the Hell's Angels. He prided himself on being a Civil War buff, but the author of "A Confederate General from Big Sur" once lost $300 betting that Lee and Grant graduated from the same class at West Point. He claimed to love technology, but he never drove a car in his life.

The qualities I'll remember most about Brautigan are his humor and his gentle sensitivity. Like Mark Twain?, he had a bleak view of humanity [he was convinced the '80s will end with race riots and global war], but his pessimism was leavened with what he called "a general goofiness." He loved to poke fun at himself and to play practical jokes on others. After a wild Fourth of July celebration at his Rancho Rauncho several years ago, I woke up the next morning to discover myself covered with and surrounded by miniature sombreros, perhaps Brautigan's playful allusion to his novel "Sombrero Fallout."

Like most artists, he was also deeply affected by things, and he wasn't afraid to show his emotions. His life and his work were filled with vivid expressions of deeply felt experience. In life, he sometimes lost control of those emotions: A television documentary on kamikaze pilots once caused him to cry fro nearly an hour.

Perhaps because the world was often too much with him Brautigan sometimes went incommunicado for long periods. He would simply unplug his phone or turn on his answering machine, and that would be the last his friends would hear from him for weeks. Usually he would work during those periods of solitude. He called it "canning himself in," and he explained it by saying "The Japanese have this wonderful system called canning. When a writer's deadline is near, he will lock himself in his room, often with his editor, and he will not leave the room, even if it takes weeks, until the manuscript is finished. He will eat in the room, sleep there, and he will write, write, write."

Brautigan also liked to be alone even when he wasn't working full-tilt. Much of the time he stayed on his secluded ranch in Pine Creek, Mont., where he had an almost compulsive fear of trespassers. "I'm a mountain troll," he described himself, "and trolls don't like intruders." I saw one pair of teenagers on his property flee when this 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound, shaggy haired troll lumbered their way with an ax.

Even though his ranchhouse was large enough to sleep eight or nine people, Brautigan often preferred to stay in his "troll hole," a small shack next to the main house, where he felt more secure.

In early September, Brautigan must have been drinking and dialing because in turning on my answering machine one day I heard his familiar wry voice say, "Even trolls gotta reach out and touch someone sometime, pal." I wasn't too concerned when in the ensuing weeks I could not reach him. And that is why I am not surprised that it took Don Carpenter? and Curt Gentry five weeks of silence from Brautigan before they had to disturb his privacy. His friends knew he needed time alone.

Chicago Tribune?
November 12, 1984: Sec. 5: 1, 8

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.