Sombrero Fallout

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The best thing about Richard Brautigan’s new novel may well be the cover: like the original hardback, the paperback edition bears the design of a reclining Japanese woman and an alluring cat whose sumptuous hair and feline beauty reproduce and extend her own. Juxtaposed with the predominantly green design, the purple lettering of the title, Sombrero Fallout, promises whimsy as well as complexity. “Fallout” conjures up visions of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, while its inexplicable pairing with “sombrero,” and the latter’s connotations of the mores of Spanish America and the American Southwest, startle and mystify. The adjective of the subtitle, A Japanese Novel, both hints at an extension of the fallout theme (Pearl Harbor?) and suggests the necessity of a reinterpretation of “sombrero”: does it carry here its obsolete meaning of an Oriental parasol, rather than, or in addition to, the more common one of a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican hat?

The novel proper, wherein these various allusions are elucidated in a generally more straightforward fashion than one might have anticipated, begins in a manner not altogether direct: it inscribes itself in a certain modern tradition of fiction—that of the novel which functions as a reflection on itself. This particular quality is owing, in Sombrero Fallout, first of all to the presence of the author, or someone rather like him, as character: the central figure bears no name, only the epithet “an American humorist.” Like Brautigan himself, who authored more than half a dozen collections of poetry and as many novels before the present work, the American humorist writes “books” and has achieved fame. He is initially engaged here precisely in composing a story about a sombrero falling out of the clear blue sky for no apparent reason and landing on Main Street, in front of the mayor, his cousin, and an unemployed man. The work begins in fact with quotation marks, for its opening sentences are being written at the typewriter of the American humorist. Before the first chapter’s end, the author of the sombrero story has decided against continuing it, and has carefully torn up the paper into little pieces: capriciously destroyed, then, is everything we have just read about the sombrero. Eight tiny chapters later, we return to the almost empty wastepaper basket containing those scraps of paper. They seem, to the American humorist, to have a life of their own. In fact, they decide to do just that: to have a life of their own, to go on without him.

The story of the sombrero falling out of the sky in a hot and sleepy town, then, will tell itself as the reader reads it. It is now a text entirely independent of its maker, a story ostensibly without a teller. The device of the independent text is not new, of course, but it still captivates. And as the bizarre tale evolves, the American humorist, completely separated from his aborted but still viable novel, continues prey to his own grief: his Japanese girl friend of two years has recently left him. The resulting frustration and loneliness are what impair his creativity. Two stories (apparently related only in that he who initiated the one is the chief protagonist in the other) henceforth keep pace: the recital of the snowballing events in the little sombrero town and the account of the desolate lover trying to kill an evening at home.

First the more sentimental of the two. After succumbing to tears and demolishing the first paragraphs of his story at about 10:15 P.M., our American humorist, forelorn, heartsick, worried, intermittently hungry, sulks and mopes about his apartment. He decides against going out for a hamburger (just yesterday he ate two burgers; it’s too soon for another), reconnoiters the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets for eggs (knowing full well he never keeps any), considers his inordinate liking for tuna fish sandwiches with mayonnaise and his inviolable resolve to consume no more of them (tuna contains higher than normal levels of mercury), telephones an old girl friend and immediately calls her back to cancel. He is obsessed with thoughts of his Japanese ex-mistress, recalling how they met (in a bar), how she had read his books and knew who he was, how he took her...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)

Sombrero Fallout Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

New York Times Book Review. January 15, 1978, p. 27.