As a book trader, it's my experience to encounter tens of thousands of books all the time, sifting through them for sleepers, sorting and discriminating at will. As a dealer in "modern first editions" (that is, collectible books published since circa 1900), I routinely consider the works of Richard Brautigan, usually the popular trade editions of his later novels (The Hawklike Monster, Willard and His Bowling Trophies, Sombrero Fallout, The Tokyo-Montana Express, etc.), and just as routinely reject them as unsalable material. Like most people, I first became aware of Brautigan during the late 1960's and early 1970's, when his notorious hip novel Trout Fishing in America appeared. Copies of the first true edition published by Donald Allen's Four Seasons Foundation have become almost unobtainable on the market. Early in his career, Brautigan himself published a number of slim little chapbooks of verse, some of which were given away--and all of which, today, are very valuable.
Like most people, I suspect, my feelings reading Brautigan's work tended towards skepticism. His narratives are not really stories, but surrealistic snapshots of events and people which are not tied to reality, except tangentially. The point of his work seemed to be to make very hip metaphysical jokes or ironic equations about life. Their spirit was unlike Beat literature. They were much more fatalistic and peculiar. As a kid who'd been raised by a man who worshipped the sport of fly-fishing, I was disappointed to learn that the book had nothing really to do with fly-fishing as such.
It seemed to me then that Brautigan the author was probably a very shrewd sort of hustler who'd managed to put one over on the literary world. That would seem to have been the official verdict at the time, that its author was a clever "naif"--an inventor of quips and wise-cracks designed to impress teenagers and hipsters. In short, Brautigan had enterprised the counterculture trends of the 1960's into a full-blown literary spoof, complete with photos of himself and his girlfriends on the book covers, made out to look like fringe vagabonds.
Brautigan's life was a mess, from beginning to end. A difficult childhood was followed by a period of struggle, trying to scratch out an existence while writing. Trouble with the law, incarceration in a mental facility (including shock treatments), and a period spent cruising North Beach in San Francisco, sleeping around with lots of groupies, a number of failed relationships. With fame and success and money, his escapades became more bizarre. An alcoholic all his life, and a sufferer of depression (much of it related to his tormented childhood), he eventually committed suicide in an old house he owned in Bolinas.
Since I had never been much interested in the world Brautigan lived in, or in his fiction (though his poetry I found intriguing), I didn't mourn his death. His reputation had declined, and his last published books looked like exploitation.
Recently, I came across a nice copy of Keith Abbott's memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing in America [Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1989], published five years after Brautigan's suicide. Abbott's account is a rambling, though consistent, portrait of his friendship with the late writer, covering their early years in San Francisco during the Sixties, with a few snapshots in the years following, and a short critical take on his literary style. What I found fascinating was the revelation that Brautigan was so much like the figure he wanted to project in his work. In other words, he was every bit as enigmatic and confused as his peculiar sentences and metaphors and narratives suggested or implied. Ordinarily, I think of authors as being "smarter" than their work, which is to say they design or craft their writing like clay, to make an object that bears their intention, with greater or lesser success. Abbott emphasizes how meticulous Brautigan was about his work, slaving over it, revising it, worrying it. But for a man without a college education--in effect, a self-taught writer--whose experience was limited, his sense of his purpose or mission as a writer was very close to the sort of man he was. In that sense, his work is a version of roman à clef--in which real people or events appear barely concealed with invented names or dates or places. In the 1960's, French and German existentialism was very big, and you can read this quality in Brautigan's fiction. But he also was able to convey a sense of American free-spiritedness, which is more like the Beats. It's hard to imagine Trout Fishing in America without On the Road.
Ken Kesey, almost his exact contemporary (both were born in 1935, and Kesey's novels were published in 1962 [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] and 1964 [Sometimes a Great Notion]), shares with Brautigan the position of inventor and defender of an attitude towards life and conduct that we now recognize as familiar to a whole generation. The Flower Generation.
As Abbott makes clear, Brautigan was probably clinically abnormal, and much of his behavior and thought was irrational. His literary skill was in transforming his troubled visions into form and content, which pleased his admirers and frustrated his detractors. He didn't grow as a writer, and seemed held by his demons in a permanent creative stasis. The underlying subtext of his work is of characters who suffer from a difficulty in enduring reality, and who invent imaginary strategies for fending it off. It may be that he lived his own life in much this way, fantasizing alternative versions of himself, which he projected in his fiction. Interestingly, Kesey's masterpiece, Cuckoo's Nest, posits just such a position for its protagonist, that of misunderstood outsider McMurphy. McMurphy could fit right into a Brautigan narrative.
Today, Brautigan's reputation is tarnished, primarily in my view as a result of the second-rate work that he published after 1970, work which suggested he was rehashing the same material, or was unsuccessfully attempting to refashion himself into a straight novelist. His talent was a small one, but genuine and precious (in both senses). The pretense in his work is that you will and will not (simultaneously) take him seriously. The driver of his work may have been pain and frustration, but he turned those feelings into wit and irony.
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