Dennis Loy Johnson's review of 'You Can's Catch Death'
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The avant-gardist's daughter

by Dennis Loy Johnson?

"If you weren't here, I would have killed myself last night," '60s writing icon Richard Brautigan once told his 14-year-old daughter Ianthe when she visited him at his Montana hideaway. "But I didn't want you to find the body."

When the avant-garde author, best known for his novel "Trout Fishing in America," finally did shoot himself in 1984, Ianthe was 24, and left with a terrible sense of guilt that, this time, she hadn't been there.

"To make matters worse," she writes in a new memoir, in the barrage of press that followed, "I did not recognize the dignified, brilliant, hysterically funny, and sometimes difficult man who was my father in anything."

Fans have had similar complaints about Brautigan's critics for years. His 20 books of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction and poetry were openly confessional about grim matters, such as his excessive drinking and suicidal tendencies among the working classes. At the same time, his work has a sweet and whimsical sensibility and a biting sense of irony.

Critics, however, often missed any complexity behind Brautigan's conversational style and seemed put off by his countercultural demeanor, dismissing him as a hippie or "the last of the Beats." Nonetheless, a huge following continues to buy his books. "Trout Fishing" has sold more than 2 million copies.

All of this has finally led Ianthe Brautigan to simultaneously publish her first book — the memoir, "You Can't Catch Death" — with her father's last, "An Unfortunate Woman," a novel completed shortly before his death (both from St. Martin's).

In a recent interview, Ianthe (her parents named her "after a violet that grew on a mythological mountain," she says, yet "took the precaution of giving me Elizabeth as a middle name") said her father clearly intended "Unfortunate Woman" for publication but she "just couldn't handle it" until now. The book deals with suicide, and also with tension between a man and his daughter — who, like Ianthe, married against her father's wishes.

Meanwhile, Ianthe Brautigan's memoir "was so personal that I wasn't sure I would ever publish it."

Her father's fame made her life tricky — "I had teachers follow me home from school to see where I lived," she said. As an adult taking college classes to work on the manuscript, she used an assumed name. Parts of her father's story were, simply, painful to tell. A child of the Great Depression, he was brought up in dire poverty in rural Oregon by an abandoned mother. On the point of starvation, the teen-age Richard asked local police to arrest him so he could get a decent meal. When they refused, he threw a rock through a station-house window.

Reasoning that he must be crazy, the police took him to a mental institution, where he was confined for three months and forced to undergo electroshock therapy.

"Someone asked me why I wasn't more angry about his suicide," Ianthe Brautigan told me. "But if you met my dad, there was just this terrible, poignant sadness, and you would understand. Not that I don't think he was foolish — I find it interesting that somebody who had such a vast imagination could not imagine getting to the next point."

But she said the project provided reminders of his more positive side. On a book tour, fans have flooded her with mementos, including a tape of a Richard Brautigan reading at Stanford University.

"You can hear barking dogs," she told me. "People brought their dogs to readings back then! So it's this mob scene, and when my father is done reading you can hear this kid come up and ask him to deconstruct one of his poems — you know, 'Does it mean this and this and this, or this and this and this?' And my dad says, 'It's just a poem. That's all it is, it's just a poem,' and he walks away.

"And that, I think is why he got in trouble — you can be avant-garde, but it takes a lot of spin. You have to keep jumping up and down, saying, 'I'm avant-garde, I'm avant-garde!' And he wouldn't do that. If you don't set up a place for yourself, unless you're really savvy, you're going to get in trouble.

"I know he was difficult, but he was so on his own ... he paid a huge price." She said she hoped her book would act in tandem with his.

"The cool thing about Richard Brautigan is he just did what he did. He was never pontificating. He went his own way for a long time, and that gives me courage."

Online Athens
Saturday, July 22, 2000
Online Source: http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/072300/ath_0723000012.shtml(external link)

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