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Masterplots | Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novelby Joan Hinde Stewart?
Author: Richard Brautigan (1933- )
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (New York). 187 pp. $6.95
Type of work: Novel
Time: The present
Locale: San Francisco and a small town in the Southwest
An American humorist tries to come to grips with the loss of his Japanese girl friend; and a sombrero falls from the sky in a small town in America, eventually leading to riots bloodshed, and mayhem.
The best thing about Richard Brautigan's new novel may well be the cover like the original hardback, the paperback edition bears the design of a reclining Japanese woman and an alluring cat whose sumptuous hair and feline beauty reproduce and extend her own. Juxtaposed with the predominantly green design, the purple lettering of the title, Sombrero Fallout, promises whimsy as well as complexity. "Fallout" conjures up visions of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, while its inexplicable pairing with "sombrero," and the latter's connotations of the mores of Spanish America and the American Southwest startle and mystify. The adjective of the subtitle, A Japanese Novel, both hints at an extension of the fallout theme (Pearl Harbor?) and suggests the necessity of a reinterpretation of "sombrero": does it carry here its obsolete meaning of an Oriental parasol, rather than, or in addition to, the more common one of a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican hat?
The novel proper, wherein these various allusions are elucidated in a generally more straightforward fashion than one might have anticipated, begins in a manner not altogether direct: it inscribes itself in a certain modern tradition of fiction - that of the novel which functions as a reflection on itself. This particular quality is owing, in Sombrero Fallout, first of all to the presence of the author, or someone rather like him, as character: the central figure bears no name, only the epithet "an American humorist." Like Brautigan himself, who authored more than half a dozen collections of poetry and as many novels before the present work, the American humorist writes "books" and has achieved fame. He is initially engaged here precisely in composing a story about a sombrero falling out of the clear blue sky for no apparent reason and landing on Main Street, in front of the mayor, his cousin, and an unemployed man. The work begins in fact with quotation marks, for its opening sentences are being written at the typewriter of the American humorist. Before the first chapter's end, the author of the sombrero story has decided against continuing it, and has carefully torn up the paper into little pieces: capriciously destroyed, then, is everything we have just read about the sombrero. Eight tiny chapters later, we return to the almost empty wastepaper basket containing those scraps of paper. They seem, to the American humorist, to have a life of their own. In fact, they decide to do just that: to have a life of their own, to go on without him.
The story of the sombrero falling out of the sky in a hot and sleepy town, then, will tell itself as the reader reads it. It is now a text entirely independent of its maker, a story ostensibly without a teller. The device of the independent text is not new, of course, but it still captivates. And as the bizarre tale evolves, the American humorist, completely separated from his aborted but still viable novel, continues prey to his own grief: his Japanese girl friend of two years has recently left him. The resulting frustration and loneliness are what impair his creativity. Two stories (apparently related only in that he who initiated the one is the chief protagonist in the other) henceforth keep pace: the recital of the snowballing events in the little sombrero town and the account of the desolate lover trying to kill an evening at home.
First the more sentimental of the two. After succumbing to tears and demolishing the first paragraphs of his story at about 10:15 P.M., our American humorist, forlorn, heartsick, worried, intermittently hungry, sulks and mopes about his apartment. He decides against going out for a hamburger (just yesterday he ate two burgers; it's too soon for another), reconnoiters the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets for eggs (knowing full well he never keeps any), considers his inordinate liking for tuna fish sandwiches with mayonnaise and his inviolable resolve to consume no more of them (tuna contains higher than normal levels of mercury), telephones an old girl friend and immediately calls her back to cancel. He is obsessed with thoughts of his Japanese ex-mistress, recalling how they met (in a bar), how she had read his books and knew who he was, how he took her home and fumbled putting the key in the lock, how they slept together that first night. (He may be clumsy, lacking in humor, and not especially handsome, but he's an exceedingly good lover; that's why the girl — very exacting on that particular score — stayed with him so long in spite of her reservations.)
Yukiko, meanwhile, is sleeping peacefully sixteen blocks away in a suburb of San Francisco, infinitely relieved to be rid at last of her insecure and neurotic companion. Next time she won't choose an author: they require too much emotional upkeep. She dreams to the purring of her black cat, dreams of her adored dead father, who committed suicide and is buried in Japan; she dreams and her hair dreams too - it dreams of being carefully combed in the morning. In her dreams there is an umbrella purchased for her in Japan (an Oriental umbrella, therefore - a sombrero?). Yukiko, in fact, sleeps through the entire novel - whose fictional time covers, admittedly, only a little over an hour. One wonders why the artist portrayed her as open-eyed on the cover. While she sleeps, the American humorist almost goes mad when he finds, then loses, then finds once again, a single strand of long, black Japanese hair. At 11:15 he is sitting with a tight grasp on the recovered strand of precious hair and singing a Country-Western song of his own spontaneous invention, about loving a Japanese woman: "She's my little lady from Japan."
"Meanwhile back in the wastepaper basket," the tale of the misplaced size 7 1/4 sombrero perpetuates itself. At the mayor's behest, his cousin reaches to pick it up and instantly recoils: the hat is ice-cold. Political aspirations come into play (the cousin would dearly like to be mayor someday) and he begins crying uncontrollably - like the humorist himself, whose cheeks have known a steady stream of tears since Yukiko's departure a month earlier. A crowd gathers and within a short time the curious crowd is a rioting crowd. The mayor goes mad, and arms himself along with the rest of the populace; the governor is called in, but killed en route to the scene. The town is under siege. The National Guard, and then the President of the United States himself, must intervene. War correspondent Norman Mailer arrives and demonstrates remarkable courage and perseverance in covering his story.
If the two tales which constitute the novel are themselves somewhat vapid, their conjunction is provocative and confers on them more meaning than either would have alone. Thus the distress of the American humorist both precipitates and parallels the chaos in Main Street; the death and destruction which have the wastebasket as their theater are emblematic of his own private desolation. The stories organize themselves around a series of pairs or oppositions: bathos and frenzy; heat (the temperature of the town) and cold (the sombrero); hats and umbrellas; East and West; Asian calm (Yukiko is not only taciturn by nature, she is in addition a psychiatrist by profession) and Caucasian volubility; restful and restoring sleep (the woman's, the cat's) and frantic wakefulness (the humorist's); spontaneous generation (the sombrero story) and spontaneous effacement (Yukiko's dreams); hunger (the mayor's companion's, the humorist's) and satiety (the cat's).
The evocation of Norman Mailer at the scene of the riots is perhaps typical of the kind of parody and fantasy for which Brautigan won himself a sizable public a decade ago. Whether the events are familiar or outrageous, his tone remains casual, and Brautigan affects in general to use only simple declarative sentences. There are without any doubt some delightful images (the American humorist's worries are trained white mice scurrying after him, with voices more forceful than those of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) and some amusingly absurd speculation (does the right eye or the left start crying first?).
But on the whole it is difficult to see why his style has been described as poetic. One need look no further than the reviews quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition for examples of such pronunciations: Sombrero Fallout is adjudged to be not merely intricate and subtle, it is "poetry written as prose," and "structural like a prose poem" (whatever that means). Where can this poetry reside? Surely the rather silly device of repeatedly indenting for each of a succession of short declarative sentences ("The cat jumped into bed." New paragraph. "The cat lay down beside her." New paragraph. "The cat did a moment's methodical cleaning of its front paws." New paragraph. "The cat used its tongue..."), so that the passage contains as many paragraphs as sentences, does not suffice to constitute poetry. Nor, certainly, can expressions which are elliptical to the point of being only marginally intelligible ("she had lost the dimensions of her existence and what she wanted out of life") be thereby qualified as "poetic." Nor, finally, does the occasional gratuitous suppression of punctuation and syntax make for poetry in prose. Brautigan is, moreover, infuriatingly repetitious: many of the eighty-five extremely short chapters (some of them a mere four or five lines, and each sporting a one-word title which accentuates the effect of brevity) begin by recapitulating what has taken place in previous chapters. Each successive movement of the novel thus involves a contraction before the expansion, so that in spite of its occupying only 187 pages, it produces at times the impression of being agonizingly slow-paced.
This new novel - where the inspiration is not always in evidence, where the fictional devices are sometimes both blatantly factitious and rather hackneyed, and where the asides are occasionally downright sophomoric ("Interesting that this fact had not been brought up until now") - seems unlikely to make many converts for its author. But those who are already sensitive to the appeal of Brautigan will doubtless enjoy Sombrero Fallout. It is as droll, as unconventional, as understated, as eccentric as his previous works, and it affords in places the undeniable pleasure of recognition - recognition of familiar though unwonted attitudes, of minuscule feelings and of frames of mind which the reader has experienced, though of which he may have had only a threshold awareness.
Magill's Literary Annual?. Ed. Frank N. Magill.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1978. 785