September 21, 2005
Thinking About Richard Brautigan
Sometime in September 1984 writer Richard Brautigan adopted Hemingway’s end-strategy and blew his brains out in his home. I say “sometime” because the writer had heavily bunkered down in his outback post in California—friends hadn’t seen him in ages, and police could only say, when they did discover his body, that the corpse had been there “for weeks”. Before his death though, the few friends he did have noted Richard’s taste for liquor and guns, and when his body was found, so too were hundreds of bullet holes in doors, walls and the ceiling. These were indeed strange times.
At the time of his suicide (he was 49-years-old) Brautigan was very far away from many things—after the success of his first novel, Trout Fishing in America (it sold 2 million copies), his later novels attracted little to no public or critical attention, and the last book published whilst he was alive, And So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away, sold just 15, 000 copies. Brautigan was also very far away from the hippie-milieu he was said to have led, at least literarily—he chastised the hippie-movement, and probably critics’ habit of including him as their chief.
His Beat badge also seemed redundant—the echoes he shared with Ginsberg and co. were light and superficial—a raffish life and rhapsodic prose, but he was very far from the experiments with acid and jazz and self and seemed content drinking strong liquor and living in the country. He was a romantic solipsist shooting at the moon, and he and his writing never appeared to grow up.
What Brautigan was is difficult to pin down, but very certainly he was an odd cousin to Kafka’s torture—the narrator/writer thwarted by the violent caprices of an absurd and unsympathetic world. In response, Brautigan attempted to anchor in childhood, populating his stories with the lush vibrancy of innocence, though his books are granted a menace by the understanding that the innocence is forever under threat.
Brautigan was always under threat from himself—from his gun-play, his depression, his alcoholism; traits that were constantly in battle with the whimsical word-play and obsessions with childhood that defined his books.
Poet and literary critic Lawrence Ferlinghetti said once that Brautigan could never be an important writer because he was naïf, naïve and had never grown up. This is true, but it is doubtful if Brautigan ever wanted to be anything but. He knew too much about his own demons, and seemed content, yet doomed, to live within his own worlds where innocence can be lost, but the worlds in which they exist are magical and precious.
For Brautigan, memory and imagination were important ladders out of his Kafkaesque gloom—but to keep writing he had to keep mining his own past, and it seemed that eventually the rent got too high.
No, Brautigan will never be an important writer, but we should read him for a few reasons—his skillful metaphor, his easy fusion of history and imagined memory, and as documentation of the strange experiment of trying to live within your own books.
Posted by Marty at September 21, 2005 1:59 PM
for me, he was horribly inconsistent, but when he was 'on' he was magical. one of the best. i think consistency is over-rated.
if only mining your past fused w/ imagined memory had any credence in real life! i get chastised for it; then again, it's easy to get lost in here...
love yer work, m - your handling of your icons gets more realistically sympathetic - eschewing hyperbole - with every passing year. i like this direction. : )
Posted by: reuben at September 21, 2005 2:13 PM
schucks. -- bugger me, i just returned from your blog... wish you were here to make my crap hair and dodgy facial hair sexy with those new lens... yes, i will be here in december -- look forward to some warm bloody weather...
Posted by: marty at September 21, 2005 2:26 PM
Part of the tragedy that was Brautigan was that most Americans don't understand him or his work - and most Europeans did. Enough said.
Posted by: Robert at September 3, 2006 4:15 PM
I normally don't waste my time throwing my opinion into these silly debates. If the rhythm of a writers words hit you a certain way and you like them, so be it. The best writers, for my money, have always had a musical quality and timbre to their writing and brautigan was one of the scant few that OWNED that quality. For that reason alone, he should be regarded as important, if not for the astonishing passages that he wrote. People too often take the boring and the ponderous in literature and mistake it for something fresh and vital. Time will be a lot kinder to Brautigan than many of his peers.
Posted by: Cormac culkeen at September 3, 2006 9:26 PM