Introduction to the Rebel Inc edition of Sombrero Fallout
by Kevin Williamson
First of all a rant.
I'm not paranoid but they're definitely out there and they've all got it in for the rest of us. Millions of them. The suits, bankers, slickers, bosses, foremen, coppers, narks, press hacks, commentators, critics, professors, accountants, academics, teachers, popes, priests, ministers, lawyers, judges, generals, soldiers, bureaucrats, dole clerks, and, of course, those cherished upholders of free speech and democracy, the parliamentarians.
Unfortunately, to borrow a bit of S&M scene jargon, it isn't just the tops but many of the bottoms too. Together, their voices are incessant, in surroundsound, always arguing, mocking, contradicting, moralising. Clack, clack, clack. If you dare to look different, act strange, think, they're on your case, whispering, judging, never attempting to scrape below the surface. In the mornings they might sit behind you on the bus, discussing the TV soaps, tut-tutting. But when you turn around they're gone. However, their sour observations linger, poisonous, circling all day like vultures inside your brain.
You'll always find a concentration of them on TV and in the media. These sort of environments attract the worst. The centres of attention. These people revel in their post-modernist ironies but if they really understood what this meant they'd be walking around wearing black Situationist T-shirts with the words LISTEN TO ME graffiti-ed on their chests.
Pick up any newspaper and they'll have set the tone of everything you read - from the editorials and back-page to the book reviews and letters-page. There is a single thread. These guys even agonise over the tone of headlines for chrissake. Headlines, we are told (by them) are an art. Oh, aye. These are words written to fill an exact space. For instance: front page, tabloid-style, beneath a four-letter word, is another four-letter word. Of equal length. This formula, like their whole outlook, is rigid and copied. From one to the next.
But this is the clever bit. These people, millions of them, anonymous, individuals, have been enlisted as part of a crusade... without even knowing it! They inadvertently put their weight behind something that has no name and no apparent identity. They don't even see a connection between themselves and their fellow-travellers. For although their strength relies on collective action you never see them grouped together, plotting, directing the flow. There's no need.
Worst of all, they try to pollute everything they come into contact with, like a fog.
Yeah, I know, this all sounds a bit inspiratorial, laboured, mysterious, but it's not meant to be. It's simplicity itself For in both structure and function these people (collectively) act like a fog in our midst: reducing vision, and creating a blanket of grey uniformity. And it's through the process of osmosis rather than force that their views achieve maximum penetration.
Alexander Trocchi? called them Grundys. And he too encountered them wherever he went. Mean-spirited, frowning on all forms of pleasure, straight-laced as an old boot, with their eative, sexual, freedom-loving juices all dried up. These were the people who worked for Sheffield Council and burnt copies of Cain's Book upon its publication in 1963. These were the same people in the West Midlands police force who tried to censor and destroy a photographic book by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1998. They never rest.
William Burroughs simply called them shits. 'Of course,' wrote Burroughs, 'any Johnson does shitty things at times. But he knows enough to regret such actions. It is very rare that a hard-core shit acts like a Johnson. He simply does not understand what it means to be a Johnson, and is irrevocably committed to a contrary viewpoint.'
Writers like Burroughs and Trocchi fought a war of attrition against this blanket of fog. It wasn't enough to just write. Engaging the enemy was necessary. Cutting through the fog. Crazy ideas, psychoactive drugs, cut-ups, sigma projects, anti-universities, all of these were used as temporary weapons in an on-going war, boxing clever.
Ladies and gentlemen, in the blue corner we have the formal logicians, masters of all they survey, controllers f the levers of power, nurtured by pragmatism, and born in a hermetically-sealed acuum. These guys call a spade a spade, as God is their witness.
Meanwhile over in the red corner, we have the challengers, pulling out all their abstract trickery, sleight-of-hand, nd, deadliest of all, that old dialectical logic that had them rolling in the aisles back in the days when Magritte would cut off their nose and push apples in their face. These guys say they've got one eye open, looking outwards, and one eye closed, looking inwards. So it shouldn't be too difficult to hit them on the blind side then, eh?
And so the war goes on. Yet it's a strange war. The enemy is cold, soulless, resorting to brute force when the going gets tough, but usually sufficing with an invisibly orchestrated chorus of whispers, derision, and dull repetition: one and one makes three, one and one makes three, one and one makes three...
But within the creeping damp of this fog are spectacular rainbows of light, pure joy, carnality, experimentation, and a childlike playfulness. The stuff that gets you from A to B intact. And right there near the chaotic centre of it all, in amongst the old John Coltrane records, and the remembered sex, and the October Insurrection, and a girl who broke my heart... is Richard Brautigan.
Gordon Legge, author and RB fan, wrote that Richard Brautigan looked like David Crosby (see Legge's introduction to Revenge of the Lawn). His hair, that moustache. But to me he was more like a sporting hero than a musician.
If Richard Brautigan had been a footballer he could have been Johan Cruyff. Cruyff was something else. His movement was fluid, elusive, deceptive, and when he ran with the ball he was poetry in motion, able to change direction with an effortless shrug of his shoulders, leaving defenders trailing in his wake. They'd shake their heads in frustration, thinking, how did he do that?
Or maybe Brautigan could have been the legendary Muhammed Ali. Gifted, eloquent, and always doing the unexpected. For instance, there was the Ali who beat Sonny Liston, gliding around the ring and floating like the proverbial butterfly. Or there was the Ali who fought George Foreman - the rumble in the jungle, the greatest boxing match of all time. The commentators expected the butterfly to have its wings pinned back and its head torn off. But the dancer didn't dance. He soaked up the punishment, came back off the ropes, and destroyed the big slugger with a perfect right to the head. Ali did what everyone least expected because he had imagination, he wrote his own script.
There's a short story in Brautigan's Revenge of the Lawn where a man removes the plumbing from his home and replaces it with poetry. John Donne becomes the water-pipes, Shakespeare is the new bathtub, and even the minor poets get to be the toilet. The poets love the new arrangement but the man changes his mind and wants his old plumbing back: 'But I have to have plumbing, real plumbing in this house. Did you notice the emphasis I put on real? Real! Poetry just can't handle it. Face up to reality,' the man says to the poetry.
In the story the poetry refuses to go and so they fight. The poetry, of course, wins, the man gets the message, and he learns to live with poetry.
All his life Brautigan fought the good fight against the constraints of reality. His vivid unfettered imagination gave birth to a BrautiganWorld where nothing was as it seemed. Anything could happen there. And it nearly always did.
But inside, there was another fight taking place. A tough one. And somewhere along the line, poetry, like the great Muhammed Ali, got punched in the head once too often and couldn't get back off the ropes. Poetry had been boxed into a corner, had got lost in the fog, and was later found dead beside a bottle of Tennessee whiskey and a .44 calibre gun. Shot between the eyes.
Of course, the poetry of Brautigan didn't die with him. Because fogs lift, even in San Francisco where Brautigan lived much of his life. And once a fog lifts something stunningly obvious becomes apparent. The Golden Gate Bridge is still the most beautiful bridge in the world. The fog has changed nothing. The fog has only temporarily hidden the poetry.
And so it is with Sombrero Fallout. Out of print and lying unpublished for years. Until now. With this new edition, once more we can enjoy Johan Cruyff twisting one way and then the other, ghosting past leaden-footed defenders.
Sombrero Fallout involves two parallel stories unravelling simultaneously. Firstly, there's a discarded story writing itself in a waste-paper basket about an ice-cold sombrero that falls from the sky. The sombrero is a catalyst for a chain of events which lead the world to the brink of global war and a nuclear holocaust. Meanwhile, the heart-broken author of the discarded story mourns his lost love. This is the essence of pure distilled Brautigan: very moving and very funny.
It's the heart-rending love story that will have the most universal appeal. Love stories always do. In this case the love affair has become one-sided and so the humorist's Japanese girlfriend - whose 'beautiful laugh was like rain water pouring over daffodils made from silver' - ends it all because it is suffocating her. She leaves him, promising herself she'll never go out with another writer because writers are 'emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was too complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it.' The writer meanwhile desperately searches around his house for a discarded strand of her hair.
Yet the surreal sombrero story which runs parallel to the love story is even more intriguing as it reveals the wild genius of the Brautigan imagination in action. He works the situation to outlandish consequences. The mayor's cousin and the unemployed person start crying over the fallen sombrero and a crowd gathers round them discussing why the men are crying and other possibilities like pregnancy or an increase in social security payments. The Mayor shouts for order and rumours spread of a riot and tear gas is requested. Punches are thrown, fighting escalates, and in contrast to the personalised tragedy of the heart-broken writer's situation, in the 'outside' world of the wastepaper basket, tragedy is depersonalised and turned into farce: 'The mother begged the crowd not to step on her baby. The crowd responded to the plea by stepping on the mother instead of the baby.'
In Sombrero Fallout, just as in the life of Brautigan himself, the tragic and comic elements are inseparable, locked in perpetual struggle. Right to the end of his life Brautigan pursued with no small vigour the rock'n'roll lifestyle of wine, women and song, but was himself pursued just as relentlessly by the ravages of depression and melancholy. And always there was his searching for something as unobtainable as the lost love of Sombrero Fallout as Brautigan flew back and fore from his semi-reclusive existence in America across to Japan - a country that meant so much to him - and then back again. Whether he ever found what he was looking for no one will ever really know. But one clearly discernible factor in his depression and hard drinking was his struggle to come to grips with the fact that the fame, recognition and creativity he achieved in his Sixties heyday seemed to have ebbed away irreversibly. He was written off by many critics as being 'of his time' and was in danger of being forgotten as his books fell out of print, one by one.
Brautigan wrote Sombrero Fallout in 1976. Maybe even then he had doubts about what may have lain ahead. At one point in the novel he wrote ominously of being stuck forever, masturbating, in a Japanese picture; 'He knew that life did not have a happy ending but he did not want to finish that way. It would be better for him if he blew his brains out rather than having his life be completed in the form of a masturbating shoji panel.' But with typical Brautigan wit he quickly turned the situation into a self-deprecating humorous one as he described the imaginary inscription on the writer's gravestone:
An American Humorist
Rest In Peace
He's Not Jacking off Anymore
Maybe that's how he'd like to be remembered. Or maybe not. But for me, what he has left behind through his writing is a riotous celebration of life and all its crazy, hilarious, tragic, joyous, magical twists and turns. Yeah. God-damn sombrero!