Brautigan, Richard (Vol. 3)

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Brautigan, Richard 1935(?)–

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Brautigan is an American novelist and poet of the counterculture pastoral and is still best known for Trout Fishing in America.

Richard Brautigan … lives on, and is from, the West Coast—a fact which is relevant to understanding the ninety-eight poems in [The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster]. Brautigan writes poems whenever an interesting thought or phrase strikes him, or when something occurs that he feels needs to be celebrated or described. His poems are easy to read, which is a pleasure in itself, and there is very little literary feedback—that is, you're startled by what's being set down, or by a single twist either in content or in image, or by the honesty with which the poet is expressing himself, and then you continue, turning the page, without having to look back. Instant understanding is possible if you can get through Brautigan's tone, and this is where being from the West seems important, as the tone that directs these works is straightforward throughout, like a cowboy who tells a good story, only it's a new type of cowboy whose understanding of his landscape involves a mixture of peace and pleasure in everything that passes in front of his eyes. What struck me most was that there was no pressure at all to write any of the works in the book except for the knowledge and feeling that the poet could do it. Brautigan has learned from Jack Spicer about the limits and the possibilities of humor, of how far you can go in your own head while still remaining in control of the poem. The delicateness of this balance leads to an intensity which, when successful, overshadows the sometimes self-indulgent choice of subject matter….

Like Brautigan's other novels, [In Watermelon Sugar] is written in very short sections, so that a single consecutive activity like getting out of bed and going to have breakfast often takes several sections; and this is where the possibilities of transition or pacing take control of the book, for it's just as much how you read—how fast or slow—as what has actually been written that is important, how you let the weight of that simplicity stay in your head. One entire chapter, Hands, is quotable, and reads like the poems: "We walked back to iDEATH, holding hands. Hands are very nice things, especially after they have travelled back from making love."

Lewis Warsh, "Out of Sight," in Poetry (© 1970 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1970, pp. 444-45.

Here [with The Abortion] is the author of Trout Fishing In America again, a trout in each pocket, picking watermelons off the overhanging branches. What to make of him? The best dodge may be to declare genius and withdraw, but this is not so easily accomplished….

For the half-beguiled, half-annoyed, unyoung straight reader, Richard Brautigan's gentle, shaggy little books have in them much of what is both very nice and too easy about the kid culture: its music, its mobility, its sex, the milder varieties of its pharmaceutical voyaging. Brautigan, at 36 an honorary kid, floats through his books on pure talent. If he does not seem to work very hard at his writing, well, they repealed the Protestant ethic after all and insouciance is one of his major attractions….

There was not much plot in Brautigan's 1967 bestseller, Trout Fishing in America, or In Watermelon Sugar (1968), which were not so much novels as paper bags full of disassociated whimsy. By contrast, The Abortion has a real story. The heroine is Vida, who brings a manuscript to the library one night. Her book is about her gorgeous body, in which she feels uncomfortable. The hero makes her feel comfortable. They live together in the back of the library, and she bakes chocolate cookies, which the hero gives to old ladies who bring manuscripts at three in the morning. It is all very pleasant. Then Vida gets pregnant, pleasantly, and the two of them go to Tijuana and find a pleasant abortionist. When they return to San Francisco, someone has taken the hero's place in the library, but he does not mind and the book is over. It was very nice of Brautigan to write it and of Simon & Schuster to print it, and at the end, for some reason, the reader feels nice too.

John Skow, "Cookie Baking in America," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1971 by Time Inc.), April 5, 1971, pp. 93-E3.

There is less here [in Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt] than meets the eye…. Brautigan's as goofy as McKuen—another child of the Muses, with a sweet smile. He's read some Patchen, he's read some Creeley. He writes for kids who eat macrobiotic food and (don't) know where it is. Like I say, you'd starve to death on these no-cal poems.

Jonathan Williams, in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, p. 100.

Richard Brautigan is currently in the awkward position of having become something of a "cult hero" among the young, a real-life, larger-scale equivalent of the shy narrator of his novel, The Abortion, who becomes "a hero at Berkeley." The trouble with this role, of course, is that it becomes difficult to see the idol, surrounded as he inevitably is by admirers and detractors…. I believe it is important to realize that although Brautigan is a highly original writer—there is no one very much like him, recent attempts to parody him have fallen flat—he is also directly in the native American grain. Brautigan is deeply aware of both today's America—the California that waits, he says, "like a metal-eating flower"—and of the mythic American past, that golden dawn of Lewis and Clark which he evokes so movingly in Trout Fishing in America.

The combination of Brautigan's feeling for the incongruities, absurdities, inhumanities of the present and his nostalgia for the lost past produces the curiously elegaic quality pervading much of Brautigan's best work. At the same time, the need—running through all his books—to seek a "good world" in the inhospitable American present gives Brautigan's work its surprising power. (pp. 13-14)

Brautigan's books are for the most part both directly autobiographical and curiously elusive. For one thing, it's usually difficult to separate confession from whimsy in Brautigan's writing. For another, although he draws heavily on his pre-San Francisco experiences in his writing, those "old bygone days" are what he describes as "years and years of a different life to which I can never return nor want to and seems almost to have occurred to another body somehow vaguely in my shape and recognition…." (pp. 18-19)

In general, people who write or talk about Brautigan tend to be either snidely patronizing or vacuously adoring. Most of his reviewers damn him with the faint praise of words like "sweet" and "gentle"; many of the students I've discussed Brautigan with say he's groovy and let it go at that. I think that both of these responses are unfair to Brautigan's work…. I believe that, like any artist's work, Brautigan's books can stand (and benefit from) critical scrutiny. And let me say right off that I believe Brautigan to be a genuine creative artist, if an uneven one. He is surely one of the most original writers of our time; at his best, and when he wants to be, he is also among the funniest. I believe that at least two or three of his books will have, as they say, a permanent place in American literature. (pp. 20-1)

Speaking very broadly, the nearly 200 poems that make up The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and Rommel Drives On Deep into Egypt can be divided into three general categories: personal poems; poems of fantasy or whimsy, often with a strong surrealistic quality; poems of observation and social comment…. Although Brautigan sometimes strikes a genuine lyrical note in his poems celebrating a happy love relationship …, sometimes his "up" love poems tend to be somewhat gushy, overdone…. Similarly, his "down" poems frequently run the risk of collapsing into mere self pity…. But often Brautigan brings a poem to life with wit or humor. One of my favorite poems in The Pill is "My Nose Is Growing Old." In a way, this poem can be considered a contrast to "The Beautiful Poem." (pp. 25-7)

In my view, Brautigan's sense of the transforming power of art (of the imagination or the heightened perception) is at the root of one of his chief strengths as a writer—and is also responsible for the unevenness of his work, especially of his poetry…. [The] distinction between like and is tends to blur in Brautigan's poems. (p. 32)

Some of Brautigan's best poems, in my opinion, have a quality of fresh, precise observation. At times Brautigan reminds me a bit of William Carlos Williams. I assume that this is no coincidence and that Williams is a poet Brautigan admires. Significantly, in A Confederate General from Big Sur, a young man who derides Dr. Williams is promptly buried by a small landslide. After being dug out, the narrator tells us, "the next day he began reading [Williams'] Journey to Love rather feverishly."… For all his penchant for extravagance of image and for fantasy, Brautigan is like Williams in that he obviously also delights in the mundane, in the ordinary, in the sudden small illumination. Like Williams, too, he is able to give life and vitality to the most ordinary sight or occurrence. (p. 34)

At times in his poems and even in some of his short stories, Brautigan seems fairly close to John Lennon's view that art is all a con-game anyway and that anyone who looks into a song or a poem or a painting is making a fool of himself. (p. 35)

[At] his best—in perhaps two dozen or so of the poems in The Pill and Rommel Drives—Brautigan is a true poet, a poet of originality, wit, imagination, and insight. In his best poems, Brautigan can make his readers feel like that friend of his who came over to read one of his poems, returned later to reread it, and then said, "It makes me want to write poetry"…. (p. 37)

I believe that, along with Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway is one of the deepest influences on Brautigan's writing. This influence is obvious enough in relation to Brautigan's feeling for nature, as seen in the many fishing stories in Revenge of the Lawn as well as throughout Trout Fishing in America. But I think that the relationship between Brautigan and Hemingway goes further than that, and can also be seen in the subdued tone of some of Brautigan's stories. Like Hemingway, Brautigan frequently works for emotional effect by understating his feelings or by not stating them at all. As in many of Hemingway's earlier short stories, Brautigan frequently uses the point of view of an adolescent in Revenge of the Lawn. In general, these stories concern the young man's feelings of separateness, isolation, alienation. Although it can be argued that "A Short History of Oregon" suffers … from the final comment tacked on by the author, otherwise that story is a good example of what might be called Brautigan's Hemingway manner. (pp. 49-50)

[Some] of Brautigan's stories are nothing more than "easy vignettes." But I also think that there are quite a few deeply meaningful stories in Revenge of the Lawn, enough, in fact, to justify considering Brautigan a master of the short short story. Throughout the book, he handles his narratives with ease and economy. Although the stories are generally too brief to allow much character development—and anyway Brautigan has maintained that he's not much interested in "character delineation"—he is almost always successful at evoking the mood he's after, and his sense of detail is usually just right. Even the slight stories are mostly successful within their limits. (pp. 63-4)

Whereas Brautigan's other novels are all deeply rooted in contemporary American experience, filled with circumstantial details that give all three books vitality, In Watermelon Sugar (1968) is set in a strange fantasy world. In moving from Northern California to the small community of iDEATH, Brautigan relinquishes one of the chief assets of his other novels, a strong sense of time and place. The action of In Watermelon Sugar, in fact, seems almost to be outside of time and place. Or, rather, time and place in this novel have the shifting indefiniteness of a dream. Instead of reminding us of such cartographers of the American scene as Hemingway or Henry Miller, Brautigan's narrative technique in In Watermelon Sugar appears to be about halfway between Lewis Carroll and Robert Heinlein, halfway between "nonsense" fantasy and science fiction.

Despite important differences in setting, technique, and tone, however, In Watermelon Sugar does have affinities with Brautigan's other books. Most obviously,… the narrator of In Watermelon Sugar closely resembles the librarian in The Abortion and Jesse in Confederate General. Indeed, at about this point, we might as well start referring to the narrators of all three novels as "the Brautigan narrator"—a shy, retiring, lonely, gentle spirit, observant but not at home in the world. Based on the little that Brautigan has chosen to tell about himself, and without straining our inferences too much, we can say (for what it's worth) that this narrator is an autobiographical projection of the author, reflecting more or less directly, Brautigan's point of view, perceptions, values…. (pp. 115-16)

Unlike The Abortion, A Confederate General from Big Sur, and In Watermelon Sugar, Trout Fishing in America (1967) does not have a continuous, clearly defined narrative line for the reader to follow or hang on to. The book consists of forty-seven brief chapters or episodes (ranging from about half a page to six pages in length) covering a wide variety of subjects. Most of the chapters are not in fact explicitly about trout fishing; some don't have much to do with any recognizable American reality; a few … don't seem to have much to do with anything. To say that Trout Fishing in America is loosely organized would be to understate wildly. The book appears to have no real principle of organization at all. At first reading (and probably at second or even third), it might seem as if the chapters could be reshuffled arbitrarily without violation of the structure of the book. (pp. 142-43)

And yet, in his quiet way, Brautigan seems insistent that Trout Fishing in America is a novel after all. Not only was the book labelled as such when originally published, but in the short story "Forgiven," Brautigan makes reference to "a novel called Trout Fishing in America."… Whether we designate the book a "novel" or an "un-novel," a "Brautigan" or just a "book" is of course not the important point. It does seem to me, though, that it is important to consider the shape and form of Trout Fishing in America, to see where the book goes and how it gets there. (p. 145)

The first and most obvious thing to say about the structure of Trout Fishing in America is that the book does have a fairly well defined beginning, middle, and end. Although the episodes move around in time a good deal (for instance, there are several flashbacks to the narrator's childhood), the central chapters (those actually pertaining to trout fishing and/or camping) are all set within a period of about a year—beginning at a point shortly before the narrator's daughter is born. The narrator, his "woman" (as he calls her throughout), and their baby daughter roam the American West, fishing, camping, exploring—looking for a quiet, simple pastoral existence…. The last third of Trout Fishing in America is crowded with episodes emphasizing in different ways the disappearance or commercialization of the great American outdoors…. Finally, the narrator and his small family give up their nomadic existence and settle with friends in a cabin in California. The chapter following "The Last Time I Saw Trout Fishing in America" begins, "I've come home from Trout Fishing in America…."

Once again, as in A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan is writing in a rich American tradition, expressing that need for freedom from social confinements that runs through such writers as Thoreau and Mark Twain; once again, unlike his predecessors in American Pastoral, Brautigan includes a woman (and even a child) in his protagonist's flight from society. (pp. 146-47)

Ultimately, Brautigan is not writing a pastoral novel in Trout Fishing in America. Instead, he is writing an analysis of why the old pastoral myth of an America of freedom and tranquility is no longer viable. (pp. 151-52)

[Except] for Confederate General, Trout Fishing in America is surely Brautigan's funniest novel. In general, throughout his work, Brautigan's best humorous effects come from exaggeration or distortion, from what Jesse refers to in Confederate General as "a wonderful sense of distortion."… As in nineteenth-century American Tall Tale humor, Brautigan often balances his sense of distortion against mundane circumstantial details so that we accept—for a moment too long—the fantastic implications of what we're being told. (p. 178)

[But in] my view, Trout Fishing in America is at least as sad as it is funny; certainly it is far more pessimistic about life in these United States in the second half of the twentieth century than it is optimistic. (p. 180)

[The] real triumph of Trout Fishing in America is its combination of bounty and control. It is a hard book to discuss coherently, and it must have been a difficult book to put together. It would have to be, for it is ultimately a very ambitious book. Finally, Trout Fishing in America—in its combination of satire and nostalgia, of elegy and humor, of realistic description and fantasy—lives up to Brautigan's statement about it in Revenge of the Lawn, where he refers to the book as notes "toward a vision of America." (p. 181)

Brautigan is pretty consistently anti-literary throughout his books. At times, his attitude toward his own work seems defensive (the "so what?" tendency); at other times, he is amused and mocking about criticism in general, as in "Critical Can-Opener." The gentle souls of iDEATH indulge the narrator's eccentric need to write a book, but we can be fairly sure that it won't be a book of literary criticism. Such volumes, Brautigan might say, properly belong in the Forgotten Works. (p. 183)

Although Brautigan is often a very funny writer, he is not finally an optimistic one. But then neither were most of our famous American "funnymen" of the past—from Mark Twain through James Thurber. Like any humorist, Brautigan gets much of his comic effect from a quick perception of incongruities. The world of his books is largely populated with social misfits who can't or won't adjust to the society around them. It's a pretty sad fictive world, when you come right down to it. It's a lone world too; in my view, Brautigan is one of the major chroniclers of the loneliness of American experience. (p. 185)

Brautigan's preoccupation with the American mythic past—the predominance of nostalgia and elegy in his work—should remind us that the themes he explores are not only pertinent to the 1960s and 1970s; they are some of the central concerns of American literature. And Brautigan … is very much in the American grain. In one way or another, virtually all of our major writers have "gone to look for America."… (p. 186)

But what of Brautigan's probable future works? If we accept the dates Brautigan gives for the composition of his major books, his four novels, then he hasn't written a sustained work in more than five years: Trout Fishing in America (1961), Confederate General (1963), In Watermelon Sugar (1964), The Abortion (1966). Perhaps he feels that he has tapped out the vein that produced these four books, since … all four of them are in a sense variations on the same general theme—the shy loner trying to find a "good world" in the inhospitable America of the 1960s. One of Brautigan's most recently published stories, "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane" (1971), suggests that possibly Brautigan might be turning more and more to non-autobiographical materials. Whether this story indicates a trend or not, however, its publication is still a very encouraging sign, for any Brautigan admirer, because it is one of his best stories. (pp. 189-90)

Terrence Malley, in his Richard Brautigan, Warner Paperback Library, 1972.

The Abortion reads as if it were written—or murmered into a tape-recorder—over a long weekend. For the most part the style is irreducibly banal, a simpering, goo-goo baby-talk drizzle of the kind of thoughts that come into the mind crying out to be imperiously dismissed….

What [his sentences] have in common, apart from flatness and coquetry, is a studied evasion of saying anything: Mr Brautigan's prose is not about people or objects or behaviour but about Mr Brautigan—his charm, tenderness, innocence, and self-infatuation. He is both champion and victim of the current reaction against artifice, which doesn't ask a novel to be "life-like"—this would in any case be simplistic, reductive, presumptuous—but neither does it ask a novel to be anything else: like, for example, a work of art, the result of deliberation and hard work. There is possibly a minor talent flitting round somewhere in Mr Brautigan's books. He will continue to write and be read; but it is too late for him ever to begin to try.

"Precious Little," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), February 2, 1973, p. 113.

In a way, Richard Brautigan carries the new solipsism to an extreme found nowhere else. Whereas Vonnegut's novel uses a cat's cradle to suggest how man's imagination completes constructs, Brautigan's novels are the cat's cradles, and Brautigan's imagination has already provided the cats. His novels, that is, simply describe the cat that his playful imagination has created. By presenting his own particular use of the construct, Brautigan is not necessarily advocating that everyone employ the construct in the same manner; rather, he is merely demonstrating the ability of man to make whatever use of constructs he wishes. The tradition of trout fishing in America, for example, provides Brautigan terms and values by which to define and measure his own experience. By looking at existence in the context of trout-fishing-in-America, Brautigan (like most of us raised on Thoreau and Hemingway) focuses on the simplicity, honesty, fellowship, loneliness, and naturalness of his experience. When he changes the construct to watermelon sugar in his next novel, Brautigan sees experience through, as it were, watermelon sugar glasses: "In watermelon sugar," he begins, "the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar." It is as if Brautigan has transposed the "out there" from a base of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen to a base of watermelon sugar. The transposed life, needless to say, is far sweeter….

This, then, is what Brautigan's work risks: the value of his work depends upon the appeal of his perception and not so much upon the accuracy, meaning, or significance of his perception. Brautigan undertakes to argue on behalf of man's creative solipsism by presenting his own solipsistic transformations; he must, therefore, make his transformations attractive and enticing. Consequently, his work is most susceptible to preciousness. Another charge frequently brought against Brautigan is also attributable to his particular kind of experimentation with solipsism: the tendency of his work to be so highly personal as to be obscure. The world of watermelon sugar, that is, may seem not only precious, but also inaccessible and—since its only controlling agency is Brautigan's solipsism—apparently random, without ascertainable laws. Undoubtedly these charges too often obtain; but many readers who are quick to point out the moments of preciousness or obscurantism fail to acknowledge Brautigan's larger purpose—namely, to illustrate the transforming power of solipsism. It may well be, however, that in his reaction against the determinist's world Brautigan approaches the opposite extreme by minimizing the role of adjustment in experience and by over-emphasizing the powers of man's creative solipsism.

Arlen J. Hansen, in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1973, pp. 13-14.

The hero of Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America is its frustrated writer who searches up numerous creeks for the pastoral mode, that lovely pen which will draw the perfect landscape and place him at its idyllic center. When it is found in the penultimate chapter, the writer notes, marveling, that the pen could stroke "wild flowers and dark fins pressed against the paper," but that is not the world revealed in Trout Fishing. His quest for "the bank by the wood" where one is "undisguised and naked," where the elusive trout will yield to his art, takes him instead into a narrative that denies, episode by episode, the form and language of the pastoral. It is not Whitman (whose casual stance is assumed on the book's cover) whom Brautigan resembles in his fiction, but Hawthorne, the cross-purposed and ambivalent Hawthorne of "The Maypole of Merrymount" and The Blithedale Romance. Even as a desecrated pastoral space, Brautigan's California is never manifest in its thorns and roots, its Typha latifolia, as Wendell Berry's eastern Kentucky is presented, a specific and closely rendered environment in which the writer carefully locates his habitation. It exists rather as a construction in a suspect language, as a legend, the "gentle life" of iDEATH. In "The Gathering of Californians," a sketch which appears in Revenge of the Lawn, Brautigan writes: "It's strange that California likes to get her people from every place else and leave what we knew behind and here to California we are gathered as if energy itself, the shadow of that metal-eating flower, had summoned us away from other lives and now to do the California until the very end like the Taj Mahal in the shape of a parking meter." It is the message of the pastoral, the summoning power of the myth, that fascinates him: California as the "metal-eating flower" drawing her believers to a wilderness of freeways, to the Wrecking Yard where trout fishing in America, the "green thought," is ultimately realized, at once beautifully true and horribly false.

Like Hawthorne, then, Brautigan does not write within the pastoral mode as an advocate of its vision. Moved by the same ironic pessimism, but without the heavy rhetorical presence Hawthorne imposes on his fiction, Brautigan relates his narratives always in the terms of the myth they impart, subtly turning them (by implying what is not seen or said) to reveal the confinement of their discourse. He is par excellence the "reader of myths" whom Roland Barthes describes at length in Mythologies, the interpreter who reads the "mythical signifier" (trout fishing in America, iDEATH, the Library) as an "inextricable whole made of meaning and form." Yet that reading is ironic,… disclosed through the sensibility of the literal "myth-consumer," Brautigan himself, the self-dramatized refugee from Oregon whose beguiling face is amiably posed on the covers of his most significant fiction….

"There's a delicate balance in iDEATH," the writer asserts. "It suits us."… In Watermelon Sugar proposes this balance at every turn: the balance between the communal and private lives of its citizens, between technology and primitivism, and most importantly the putative equipoise that is sustained between the contrary instincts of life and death. Yet for all that, the writer is haunted. As he meanders through the narrative, his discourse seemingly drifting from experience to experience, he reveals simultaneously an abiding malaise. He writes fitfully, sculpts unsatisfactorily, radiates his anonymity, his loneliness. And when pushed by Pauline to explain the painful triangle that has strangely formed, the writer responds by speaking from the imaginative center of Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. "The heart is something else," he declares. "Nobody knows what's going to happen."… Spurned like Zenobia, Margaret shares her fate. And like Hollingsworth, though without his mania, the writer impassively witnesses her suicide in the Statue of Mirrors….

Far from being the self-indulgent poet of the counter-culture … or the writer of "lexical caprices,"… Brautigan is instead an ironist critically examining the myths and language of the pastoral sensibility that reappeared in the sixties. Yet because he writes with such seductive persuasion as Mr. Good from within that sensibility (keeping his own balance), he is often misread and the clarity of his thought overlooked. In those "close tolerances" of contemporary life Donald Barthelme describes so admirably in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, and City Life, language is always the first casualty. And where Barthelme has to a large extent made himself a master of the neutral tone of technological language, juxtaposing jargons in his writing with wicked ingenuity, making them speak, after all, what they strive to hide or distort, so Brautigan in his writing has been similarly deft in manifesting what lies unspoken and unseen in the mythic speech of his Californians. The setting of the modern pastoral is irrevocably the city it seeks to deny, the place where Trout Fishing in America (Brautigan himself) stands smiling under the surveillance of Benjamin Franklin.

Neil Schmitz, "Richard Brautigan and the Modern Pastoral," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1973, pp. 109-25.

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Brautigan, Richard (Vol. 12)


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