Enduring Works, Tortured Life of Author Richard Brautigan Recalled

by Michael Moore?

The writer Richard Brautigan burst onto the nation's literary scene in 1967 with the quirky, utterly original novel, Trout Fishing in America.

A blurb on its cover said this: "Mr. Brautigan submitted a book to us in 1962 called TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA. I gather from the reports that it was not about trout fishing."

In the slender book, trout fishing was a metaphor, but it was also a character named Trout Fishing in America, who served as a common thread running through a strange tale that is uniquely the America of the 1960s.

In the book, a young man sees a waterfall and makes plans to fish in the creek that surely feeds the falls. With a piece of string, a pin he's curled into a hook and a slice of white bread, he heads for the creek:

"The creek did not act right. There was a strangeness to it. There was a thing about its motion that was wrong. Finally I got close enough to see what the trouble was.

"The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees. I stood there a long time, looking up and looking down, following the stairs with my eyes, having trouble believing. Then I knocked on my creek and heard the sound of wood.

"I ended up by being my own trout and eating the slice of bread myself."

Then the character named Trout Fishing in America weighs in:

"The same thing once happened to me. I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont, and I had to beg her pardon.

"'Excuse me,' I said. 'I thought you were a trout stream.'

"'I'm not,' she said."

Over the next two decades, Brautigan turned out poetry, short stories and more than a dozen novels, including The Abortion and The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. But despite more than a decade of high-flying success, a distraught and alcoholic Brautigan took his own life at his house in Bolinas, Calif., in 1984.

On Thursday, two of Brautigan's friends talked about him as part of the Montana Festival of the Book. Greg Keeler, a songwriter, painter and professor of English at Montana State University, met Brautigan in 1978 in the Paradise Valley, where Brautigan lived on-and-off for part of the 1970s and '80s.

The day they met, Keeler was hoping to get Brautigan to lecture at MSU; Brautigan wanted to be a writer-in-residence at the school. Keeler and two MSU students met Brautigan at his house, and before the evening was done, whiskey had been served, spaghetti had been consumed and Brautigan had his residency.

And this: Brautigan, to make a point, had thrown his cat at Keeler's face.

That's just how things went when you hung out with Brautigan, whose aging-hippie look belied a man whose fits of rage sometimes ended up in gunplay.

But even the gunplay had its weirdly humorous side, said author William Hjortsberg, who lived across Pine Creek from Brautigan during his Montana years.

In his worst moments, Brautigan was fond of firing off a pistol in the house, shooting his clock and other household items. But he also had a fondness for labeling things, often with little brass plates like you might find on a trophy.

So once, after blowing a few holes in the kitchen wall, Brautigan went to town and bought a picture frame and had a brass label printed up and affixed to it. He then hung the empty frame around the bullet holes. The label said: "Shootout at the OK Kitchen."

One day, after shooting his clock, Brautigan informed Keeler that he'd done so because "time is not funny."

He also had a fondness for T-shirts: After film rights to his novel, The Hawkline Monster, were sold, he printed up some shirts that said, "Sold Out—Why Didn't I Think of it Sooner."

Friendship with Brautigan was something of an ordeal, his friends said. He could be cruel, drunk and rude, often at the same time.

He was preoccupied with death, Keeler said, although he pledged never to kill himself to make his work more valuable.

In retrospect, of course, that's exactly what happened. When Brautigan blew his brains out with a .44-caliber pistol in 1984, at the age of 49, his heyday was over. Although Hjortsberg, who is finishing a biography of the author, said Brautigan was still producing good work, his books weren't selling and he was increasingly despondent.

And yet Brautigan had a benevolent, kind side that mitigated his bouts of self-absorption and drunkenness. When he had money, he often gave it away to his friends, working on the premise that it's better to give than to loan. That way you can be surprised if you get paid back, Brautigan reasoned.

"When he did kind things, they were pretty classy," said Keeler, whose book, Waltzing With the Captain, recounts his friendship with Brautigan.

Perhaps the greatest testament to that friendship is that 20 years after he died, his friends are still sitting around and talking about him.

While some critics have dismissed Brautigan's work—Brautigan himself used to fume at his naysayers—Hjortsberg thinks his friend's work will endure.

"I think there's something magical about Richard," he said. "He really cared about language. He captured something essentially true about America."

October 2, 2004