Richard Brautigan American Literature Analysis
The principal themes of Brautigan’s fiction are concerned with different aspects of the same classical philosophical question: What constitutes the good life? For example, in A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan explores the role of friendship in life—its obligations as well as its joys and tribulations. Lee Mellon, the book’s central character, is an entertaining ne’er-do-well whose complex, disorganized life brings the first-person narrator, Jesse, as much trouble as it does pleasure—perhaps more. Lee is inventive and funny, but his behavior and morals are an increasing strain on Jesse’s patience and sense of right and wrong. Lee’s spontaneity and his direct contact with life cement the friendship, but it is in almost constant danger of coming apart toward the close of the story.
Though the narrator feels “a sudden wave of vacancy go over me” when Lee treats another character harshly, Jesse remains loyal. One needs friends in this world, and sticks with them (the book implies) whether they are good or bad, right, or wrong. Such a youthful answer to one of life’s tougher questions did not go unnoticed by those readers wearing bell-bottomed trousers or miniskirts.
Brautigan was concerned as well with the individual’s need for a sense of community. In A Confederate General from Big Sur, community comes in the form of the little group that gathers around the bogus general Lee Mellon at his Big Sur encampment. Community nurtures the individual and helps both to create possibilities for each person and to establish the boundaries of his or her reality. Trout Fishing in America is concerned with this same question, though here the individual’s “community” is national rather than local.
In Watermelon Sugar, set in a fantasy-embroidered commune, is especially concerned with how life is best lived in relation to other lives. The community of iDEATH represents for Brautigan one answer to the problem of how men and women may relate meaningfully to one another within a social unit. Freedom, respect, and gentleness are all-important qualities of the sort of social construct that fosters growth and trust, that makes life worth living. Just as important as community, however, in bringing meaning and purpose to life is a sound, deeply shared love between a man and a woman.
The narrator of The Abortion had drifted through a purposeless existence until he met and fell in love with Vida, a beautiful woman who brings him back in contact with life. Love gone sour and the consequences of this on the soul are the principal concerns of both Willard and His Bowling Trophies and Sombrero Fallout. Without love, Brautigan’s books imply, life is a gray, pointless affair. Both his poetry and his prose point to healthy love and sexuality as a very important part of the good life.
Despite the strength and the consistency of themes in Brautigan’s novels, this element is seldom, if ever, the emphasis in his fiction, and his readers probably did not buy his books for their ruminations on particular ideas. Instead, Brautigan was a scintillating prose stylist whose humor ran toward a zaniness that was seldom lame or strained. Lee Mellon, despite his flaws as a human being, is entertaining and fascinating because he is at the same time likable and humorously fantastic.
In Trout Fishing in America, the narrator goes to a strange sort of retail business establishment that sells trout streams by the foot (trees and birds are optional and at extra charge). Like Lee Mellon, the Cleveland Wrecking Yard is funny and sad at the same time; the reader is encouraged to laugh and ponder the odd ways of America—how it treats everything as commodity, even as Americans (both the reader and the author) try to imbue everything with meaning. Even in Brautigan’s later books such as The Hawkline Monster , the humor of situation and character is frequently entertaining. A wry view of life animates Brautigan’s early novels, and when that disappeared, so too...
(The entire section is 4,190 words.)