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Reference Guide to American Literature: Richard Brautigan

by Robert Novak?

Richard Brautigan once stated that he had written poetry for seven years to learn how to write a sentence because he wanted to write novels and thought that he could not write a novel until he could write a sentence: "I used poetry as a lover but I never made her my old lady."

The popularity of his books spread from California in the 1960s to a larger American audience in the wake of the movement often called "The Greening of America." In 1969 Kurt Vonnegut reported to Delacorte Press the West Coast popularity of Brautigan's paperbacks published by a small San Francisco press, Four Seasons Foundation. Delacorte successfully bargained for two novels, Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, and a book of poetry, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and they appeared in 1969. Three hundred thousand copies of this trilogy sold that first year, and 1,390,000 had been sold as of 1977. Soon the Japanese discovered him, and he began living there on and off, using Japan for settings and finally marrying a Japanese woman. His minimalist poetry had always had a haiku quality, and one might argue that his surrealist prose has a Japanese feel for nature.

A controversial writer because he seems to encouarge the self-adoring anti-intellectualism of the young, Brautigan is commonly seen as the bridge between the Beat movement of the 1950s and the youth revolution of the late 1960s. In a full-length study of his work, Terence Malley identifies the common theme of Brautigan's first four novels as "the shy loner trying to find a 'good world' in the inhospitable America of the 1960s." Josephine Hendin has noted that Brautigan's characters are marked by their lack of passionate attachment to anyone and to any place; they never permit themselves to feel. Perhaps an even better case can be made that Brautigan's major theme is borrowed from the Romantic poets—that of the transforming power of the imagination, that both the comedy and beauty of art lie in the power of the artist's imagination.

Trout Fishing in America (written in 1961 but not published until 1968), seems like a collage. Terence Malley, however, has explained its thematic structure and, like John Clayton, calls it an "unnovel." It has a traditional theme of American novels: the influence of the American frontier and wilderness on America's imagination, its lifestyle, its economics, its ethics, its therapies, its religion, its politics. The narrator as a child and later as a husband and a father searches for the mythical Eden of the perfect trout stream that America has promised. He finds that the spirit of such a vision of America has become perverted into a legless man in a chrome-plated wheel chair, a Hollywood hero called Trout Fishing in America Shorty, and that the Cleveland Wrecking Yard has used trout streams stacked and for sale at $6.50 per foot. Trout Fishing in America is Brautigan's Hemingway book, a kind of "Big Two-Hearted River" as seen through the disillusioned eyes of a flower child. Its pervading tone of melancholy arises from the sense that the American child, indoctrinated by our literature, movies, and commerce to believe in the American myth of the Edenic wilderness, has been betrayed. The melancholy is saved from sentimentality by unconventional plots, exaggerated figures of speech that have become Brautigan's trademark, and a style uncomplicated by difficult syntax of logical relationships. Speaking of one trout creek, the narrator says its canyon was sometimes so narrow that the creek poured out "like water from a faucet. You had to be a plumber to fish that trout creek." And the Missouri River at Great Falls, Montana, "looks like a Deanna Durbin movie, like a chorus girl who wanted to go to college." The real heroes in the book are probably the sixth-graders who terrorize first-graders by chalking "Trout Fishing in America" on their backs. John Clayton praised the book's imagination but complained of its political stance of disengagement a la Woodstock. Others noted the "latency of violence and death" in the book, along with its "humor and zaniness," its pessimism about the search for the pastoral myth, and the ambivalence in Brautigan's relation to the American myth and symbols.

Based on the proposition that one can combine stories about hippies at Big Sur and San Francisco in the 1960s and a putative General in the Battle of the Wilderness of the Civil War, Brautigan's first published novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur (1965), humorously portrays the lifestyles of Jesse, the narrator; Lee Mellon, the man who thinks he is a Confederate general; and their hippie women. It is Brautigan's Stephen Crane Civil War book. In it, Brautigan's playful vision of America satirizes the hippie lifestyle.

The twenty-nine-year-old narrator "without a regular name" of In Watermelon Sugar (1968) is an ex-sculptor who has recently taken up writing. He describes three days in his commune at small town oddly called iDEATH, population 375. A flashback describes how the town's hoodlum gang committed mass ritual suicide to restore the town. There is also an accompanying story of how the narrator grows bored with his mistress, who he feels has gone bad by consorting with the hoodlum gang, and how she commits suicide because she is displaced by a new mistress. This tragic love triangle is underplayed, and the death seems merely a sad annonyance to everybody. The real hero is the environment and the multipurpose watermelon sugar. The sun is a different color for each day of the week, there are streams everywhere, even in the living room, and houses, lighting oil, and clothes are made from watermelon sugar.

To Malley, this commune is a group of traumatized survivors of a holocaust trying to cope; they are ritualized and deprogrammed from their egoism and previous ideology. He noted, however, that some people read the book as "an acid allegory of altered consciousness" and "watermelon sugar as a euphemism for LSD or some other hallucinogen." He recognized the "curious lack of emotion" in the town and the condemnation of whiskey drinking, which is treated favorably in other Brautigan books. Such detail has led Patricia Hernlund to argue that Brautigan sees the utopian commune as an unsuccessful counterculture without pity and joy.

Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (1971) contains sixty-two vignettes and short stories that are unified by the theme of the stoicism necesssary for healthy survival after one loses the easy life of the child. Many of the sketches seem to detail Brautigan's own childhood in the 1940s and 1950s in the Pacific Northwest as a lonely poor boy addicted to fishing, an enthusiasm for World War II, and writing. The humor of the title story, arising from the story's digressive structure and deadpan tone, is reminiscent of Mark Twain. Hemingway's influence on these stories is also clear in Brautigan's feeling for nature, his subdued tone, and the frequent use of the point of view as an adolescent. Those stories set in California are ambivalent about its kinky inhabitants (the man who rebuilt his house with poetry, the woman who buried her dog in an expensive Chinese rug, the Christians having outdoor services in Yosemite). The title story humorously tells about the narrator's bootlegging grandmoter, her handyman who hated the lawn, and his comic troubles with drunken geese and bees who feed on rotting pears.

Perhaps the prototypal image occurs at the end of this sotry: the narrator's earliest memory is of a man cutting down a pear tree, soaking it with gasoline, and setting fire to it while the pears are still green on its branches. It combines both the Brautigan surrealistic image (burning the green pears) and the uneasy relationships the Brautigan characters have with nature. Again, Brautigan's theme of the imagination's abilty to reshape reality comes out of these stories in the figures of speech and the imaginative incidents, such as the geese with hangovers, the witch's bedroom filled with flowers, the child who wants to become a deer, and the customer whom the narrator sees in City Lights Bookstore debating himself whether to buy a Brautigan book.

So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away (1982), Brautigan's last novel and also his best, commemorates a series of people whom the protagonist, who may be autobiographical, knew from the age of five to thirteen "before television crippled the imagination of America." The title, a refrain throughout the book, refers to the writer's attempt to remember these vivid, often eccentric characters: a middle-aged couple who brought their couch, cookstove, and other furniture to set up an outdoor house where they fished; a fifteen-year-old athlete and popular friend whom the narrator accidentally shot to death; two old men who befriended the boy; and one who ran a gas station that sold mostly fishworms and the other who lived in isolation in a one-room shack built of crates. The Northwest seen from a bright, poverty-stricken boy's point of view through the war years and aftermath produces people he does not wish to forget. This book, having sufficient provocative human details, uses few of the usual Brautigan surrealistic figures of speech. It moves the heart instead of the head.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968), ninety-eight poems including the nine parts of "The Galilee Hitch-Hiker," gets its title from its four-line poem about the birth-control pill. Eighteen people read its "Love Poem" on the Listening to Richard Brautigan record, and because of this wonderful performance the poem becomes the book's most memorable piece. The feel of the book is The Greening of America, Consciousness III, which passes no moral judgement ("Winos on Potrero Hill"), celebrates psychedelic or surreal visions ("pomegranates go by in the metallic costumes"), and alludes to such popular music groups as The Grateful Dead and The Mamas and the Papas. The most successful poem is the high school grade card poem "Gee, You're So Beautiful That It's Starting to Rain." The poem "1942" will later be elaborated into the whole book June 30th, June 30th and is Brautigan's finest mastery of tone.

Brautigan's novels area best appreciated by the principles of the New Fiction ("Post-Modern"), spelled out in an article in TriQuarterly by Philip Stevick, especially their deliberately chosen, limited audience and the joy the observer finds in the mere texture of the data of the fiction. Thomas Herron explains how Brautigan's imagination works in his metaphors. Brautigan's theme is usually the power of the imagination to give zest, poetry, and humanness to life as well as to literature. The youth audience was reading him expecting either affirmation (unfulfilled) of the 1960s counterculture or titillation from his style and a literary equivalent of the drug experience. Professionals read him expecting enlightenment on the youth culture. He was aware of several currents of the American tradition, especially that of the new American Eden as created by Henry David Thoreau in Walden, by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn's escape to the Mississippi River, and by the California myth since the Gold Rush days, and Brautigan tends to condem the new America because it has betrayed the promises of the new American Eden.

Reference Guide to American Literature?
Detroit: St. James Press, 1994: 130-133

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