John Stickney's article on Brautigan
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Gentle Poet of the Young: A Cult Grows Around Richard Brautigan

by John Stickney?

Richard Brautigan and some friends were without the wherewithal to go to a new movie. This was a while ago in San Francisco, before Brautigan was very well known even as an underground writer, and there was this money problem. What to do? "We gathered up some of my old poetry books which were lying around moldering away," Brautigan recalls, "and we hawked them on the streets of San Francisco. Poetry for sale! Finally we bummed $7.50, enough to get everybody into the flick." Long pause for a sigh. "The movie was terrible, as it turned out."

Brautigan's unmistakable turn-of-the-century face has since appeared on the covers of three of his books and he would be instantly recognized on almost any college campus from Berkeley to Old Town to Cambridge, and at a good many high schools too. Among the young, a kind of cult exists about his writing, his preoccupation with nature and with gentle things in life. At the time of the panhandling, for instance, he was handing out poetry broadsides gratis to Haight-Ashbury passersby and publishing little folios, free for the taking in community shops. One such work, which he calls "true underground poetry," was Please Plant This Book, a collection of eight packets of real seeds, each printed with a poem and planting instructions. His first published novel provoked critical acclaim, but bombed on bookstore shelves. "My income from 1965 to 1968 was less than $7,OOO," Brautigan says. "I write because I like to write." Then, three years ago, a small San Francisco press published a second novel, this one called Trout Fishing in America.

What happened to Brautigan since Trout Fishing appeared has happened to other writers who at some stage of their careers have been mightily nourished by younger readers: The Catcher in the Rye was at the core of a J.D. Salinger cult; J.R.R. Tolkien had his hobbits in The Lord of the Rings trilogy; William Golding had Lord of the flies. As heir to them and beneficiary of this particular collegiate grapevine, Brautigan's quiet philosophy is exactly in tune with everybody's concern about man and his environment: he believes it is possible for the two to get along amicably. In strident times, Brautigan might seem an odd pocket companion for the campus barricades, but his readers find no inconsistency.

Three of his soft-cover books, which Delacorte Press has gathered together in a special hard-cover edition, have each sold close to 100,000 copies, and a new volume of poetry was just released. Negotiations for a spoken-word album are under way, movie companies are sniffing around the novels, and invitations for readings are coming in from all over the country. Besides all this, a commune, a free school and an underground newspaper all take their name from Trout Fishing in America. (But misunderstandings can arise here. Trout Fishing in America is also the name of a character in the book. And, until they learned better, sporting goods stores ordered, stocked and cheerfully sold copies of Trout Fishing.)

An odd thing about the existence of the Brautigan cult is that Brautigan, at 35, is hardly the Messiah type, like an Allen Ginsberg, and nothing at all of a self-promoter, like Rod McKuen. It is hard to imagine him on a television talk show, for instance, and he is reluctant to see interviewers or journalists. His message, such as it is, is mild and unprogrammatic, and unfashionably optimistic about human beings - life-affirming rather than life-denying - and involved completely with the everyday American experience. And yet in his imagination a free-flowing trout stream can perfectly easily be cut up and stacked in sections for sale in a wrecking yard, like pieces of an old house no one can find any use for.

Brautigan's sign just happens to be Aquarius, and his books are a gentle carnival to which young people relate easily, a show of laughter, romance, sensation and innocence - an intense identification with nature and all living things. Thoughtful hedonism, it might be called: celebrate the pleasures of life and love on the midway, he advises, because tragedy lurks just outside the gates. And most who admire him are glad to leave despair behind - so many others have told them all about that - if only for a little while. Reading Brautigan, someone has said, is "like a natural high."

Here is the end of a chapter from Trout Fishing:

"The woman who travels with me discovered the best way to catch the minnows. She used a large pan that had in its bottom the dregs of a distant vanilla pudding. She put the pan in the shallow water along the shore and instantly hundreds of minnows gathered around. Then, mesmerized by the vanilla pudding, they swam like a children's crusade into the pan. She caught 20 fish with one dip. She put the pan full of fish on the shore and the baby played with the fish for an hour.

"We watched the baby to make sure she was just leaning on them a little. We didn't want her to kill any of them because she was too young.

"Instead of making her furry sound, she adapted rapidly to the difference between animals and fish, and was soon making a silver sound.

"She caught one of the fish with her hand and looked at it for a while. We took the fish out of her hand and put it back into the pan. After a while she was putting the fish back by herself.

"Then she grew tired of this. She tipped the pan over and a dozen fish flopped out onto the shore. The children's game and the banker's game, she picked up those silver things, one at a time, and put them back in the pan. There was still a little water in it. The fish liked this. You could tell.

"When she got tired of the fish, we put them back in the lake, and they were all quite alive, but nervous. I doubt if they will ever want vanilla pudding again."

Has success spoiled the author? "It's really something to have fame put its feathery crowbar under your rock," he writes at the beginning of one of his innumerable short stories, many of which were first published in the music newspaper Rolling Stone, "and then upward to the light release you, along with seven grubs and a sow bug." Recently two young ladies in San Francisco's North Beach - whose winding up-and-down streets and late-night cafes Brautigan has haunted since he came down to the city from his birthplace in Tacoma, Washington 16 years ago - fondled a copy of Trout Fishing in a bookstore. The writer hovered about behind, undetected and unrecognized. "I'd like to get this," said one girl, "but I don't have the money." Brautigan leaned over. "Steal it!" he whispered. "Go ahead!"

When he is not encouraging petty larceny, Brautigan hides away and works in a small, elegantly cluttered apartment in an out-of-the-way San Francisco neighborhood - "a Richard Brautigan museum," as a friend calls it. The visitor must negotiate his way through a dark, narrow hall, past the room where Brautigan writes in a corner cleared of his jungle foliage of fading periodicals and manuscripts, into a sunlit living room. A battered collection of fishing tackle rests beside a fireplace that long ago ceased to function, and a number of odd plants climb the walls toward the windows as if they were trying to get out. A bottle of good whiskey sits in the kitchen. Someone painted a couple of smiling trout on the scarred wooden floor. Tacked to the wall is a letter from Hubert Humphrey, thanking Brautigan for a copy of Please Plant This Book.

It is a quiet place, and the hall is good for pacing up and down during a stalemate at the typewriter. There is a sense that things have not changed much in the museum, success or no success. The clutter is distinctly his own, the sheets of manuscript are the maps to his existence; he would be lost without them. When he is writing, Brautigan tries to isolate himself. When he is not, he loves to go visiting, rapping with friends at their houses, riding buses around the city (he does not drive, and he never seems to be in a hurry to get from one place to another), or hitchhiking up to the country to see his 10-year-old daughter Ianthe, who lives with his former wife.

In Trout Fishing, carried along on the flowing stream of his surreal consciousness and the deep pool of his gentle humor, Brautigan meanders from creek to creek, guzzles wine, chats with friends, makes love, drops in on a city or two, writes letters, creates recipes, even hooks a few trout - managing, in the deliberately cock-eyed process, to give the science of ecology a whole new dimension. "Once water bugs were my field," he says at one point. "I remember that childhood spring when I studied the winter-long mud puddles of the Pacific Northwest. I had a fellowship. My books were a pair of Sears Roebuck boots, ones with green rubber pages. Most of my classrooms were close to the shore. That's where the important things were happening and that's where the good things were happening."

He visited the shores of Walden pond not long ago, and was appalled, as everybody else is, at the rubbish he found. "Where the hell are the trash bins?" he muttered. "What would Henry David Thoreau think if he could see this place now?" He peered into the water. "Look there!" he said. "Right below the surface. A glass-backed trout is sleeping." Brautigan's friends followed his pointing finger - right to an abandoned beer bottle sitting forlornly on the muddy bottom.

"I cannot believe that man has come this far only to kill himself with his own pollution," he will say, optimistically. Then, less certainly, "I wonder whether what we are publishing now is worth cutting down trees to make paper for the stuff."

Brautigan is pleased that his first novel and the two others - A Confederate General from Big Sur and In Watermelon Sugar - are popular. But, he says, "I'm not interested in imitating a style or structure I've used before. I'll never write another book like Trout Fishing in America. I dismantled that old machine when I finished with it and left the pieces lying around in the backyard to rust in the rain."

Anyone who hangs out with Brautigan for a while risks getting the strange sensation that he has fallen by chance into one of Brautigan's books. An overcast winter day in the mountains outside San Francisco finds the author and his friend Valerie perched atop a rock close to a rain-swollen stream. Both stare intently into the turbulent water until Valerie exclaims that she has just seen a piece of celery swirl by in the current. Brautigan leaps off the rock and squints far upstream through his thick glasses.

"A piece of celery! Listen," he says, his voice rising, "that could be the first hors-d'oeuvre! Suppose there were more, an entire table full of them, canapés and all? Then a bar, with drinks and setups for everybody! And finally an entire cocktail party, man, floating down this crazy stream!" It has something to do with his mind, and the things he sees in streams.

Harvard got the same sensation, full strength, when Brautigan showed up there later for a poetry reading. The author — who never attended college, although he has been poet-in-residence at a university - cautiously ascended the podium and surveyed the hirsute, sueded, fadded and fringed crowd of neo-surrealistic young people draped around the neo-classic lecture hall. A group of his friends plopped down near the podium and began swigging on a gallon of Chablis, occasionally passing it up to the author, who has never been known to refuse a drink, even at a reading. Sufficiently fortified, Brautigan leaned forward with a poem clutched in his outstretched hands, as if he were about to cast lines of his poetry, breaking up into laughter and a little dance when he felt a strike in the crowd's response.

But Brautigan dislikes the stiff formality of a reading - he has read everywhere - at high school graduations and at San Quentin prison - and he prefers some form of give-and-take with his audience. After a half hour or so with the Harvard crowd, he jumped down off the podium to confused applause and shouts for more, and refused to return. Instead, he called for people to come up and read his poetry, or whatever they wished. Soon Brautigan aficionados clutching his books filled the aisles and began reading their favorite poems to the politely attentive audience.

Then a girl decided to recite two of her own poems, and a boy presented a short radical manifesto. Several people read Brautigan's "Love Poem" over and over, testing the changes of sound and inflections in the different voices. Someone read an absurd newspaper item which was greeted with howls of laughter, and Brautigan clapped his hands with glee. Finally a young man reached the microphone and whipped out his harmonica and began ha-wonking out a Luther Johnson blues tune. Couples got out of their seats and began to dance. Brautigan paced back and forth to the music. The happiness of the crowd was cracking him up. and he pronounced his benign total judgment of the occasion in a wide, beaming smile. "I love chaos," he said and had some more Chablis.

August 14, 1970

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