Richard Brautigan Brautigan, Richard (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Brautigan 1935–

American novelist, short story writer, and poet. Brautigan is often seen as one of the major practitioners of the New Fiction and as the literary representative of the sixties' counterculture. His works resist categorization, combining imagination, comedy, and unconventional plots and language to present a melancholy vision of American life. Brautigan's books show a recognition of and a dissatisfaction with current absurdity at the same time that they long nostalgically for the past. He mourns the betrayal of the American dream, and the theme of much of his early work has been the search for an American Eden. Trout Fishing in America is considered the best representation of this theme. His overall philosophy is a stoic acceptance of our declining culture, and a belief that the use of good humor and the power of imagination gives zest and humanity to life. Brautigan's literary view has been compared to that of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and it was Vonnegut who successfully introduced Brautigan's work, published originally by California small presses, to a national publishing company. The popularity of Brautigan's books spread across the country, finding many readers among college students who identified with his philosophy and were excited by the unorthodox use of language and structure of his poetry and fiction. Brautigan's gentleness and whimsicality appealed to the youth of the late sixties, as did his references to popular music, sexual freedom, and drug experiences. Often writing from the point of view of an adolescent, Brautigan presented himself as a writer who related to youth. However, he has been criticized for being too hip, clever, and bizarre, and his works have been called insubstantial and facile. Recently Brautigan has been writing parodies of Gothics, science fiction, and mysteries. These works are generally considered less successful than his earlier efforts. Although critics occasionally wonder if Brautigan has passed his time of relevance, it is generally agreed that his best work transcends temporal limitations and holds a unique place in American literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Philip Rahv

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Brautigan's beat-story A Confederate General from Big Sur—strikes me as very crude indeed. In it the beatnik tendency to disorganization of form and inconsequence of content reaches a new low. (p. 8)

There is little to say of Richard Brautigan's A Confederate General from Big Sur except that it is no story at all but only a series of improvised scenes in the manner of Jack Kerouac. It is pop-writing of the worst kind, full of vapid jokes and equally vapid sex-scenes which are also a joke, though scarcely in the sense intended by the author. Its two protagonists, inevitably, are a couple of young men who have made scrounging for food, liquor, and women their life-career. The only connection with the Confederacy is that one of the young men fraudulently claims descent from a general in the Civil War, And what is so terribly funny about that remains the author's secret. (p. 10)

Philip Rahv, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1965 Nyrev, Inc.), April 8, 1965.

Gilbert Sorrentino

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Galilee Hitch-Hiker] has nine short poems which take their shape from quotations from Baudelaire, and from the kind of residue in the reader's mind concerning his recollection of Baudelaire's life—or what we take his life to have been, relying on his poems. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. The perfect poem is the second one, The American Hotel …—which is really a kind of comic genius. It might be useful to note that these poems have a sense of "camp" about them, clearly manifested, and much more intriguing than what is now going down as wit…. But they are very subtle and literary, and function dryly. (p. 59)

Gilbert Sorrentino, in Poetry (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1968.

Pamela Ritterman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Trout Fishing in America] has been around for a while, enjoying some underground success. It's really about trout fishing in America. There's something of Hemingway, but also of Izaak Walton in this small compendium of anecdotes, observations, a few recipes. Brautigan can write whimsy that, miraculously, is neither cute nor embrassing. Trout Fishing is a funny, delightful book that draws freely on American mythic attitudes, the tones and rhythms of drifting, searching out trout streams, thinking slow thoughts in wide country. (p. 601)

Pamela Ritterman, in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 26, 1969.

Albert H. Norman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Brautigan's novels are as informal as an open house—everyone and everything is welcome. (p. 54)

"Trout Fishing in America" is not a book for the sportsman to get hooked on. Brautigan is an outdoorsman, but far out. His work abounds with wildlife, but not of the Field and Stream variety. A compleat angler, Brautigan drops his lines into a clear pool of consciousness, and reels in some very strange fish.

Brautigan lures the reader with eclectic bait. He combines the surface finality of Hemingway, the straightforwardness of Sherwood Anderson and the synesthetic guile of Baudelaire. Blunt and sparing with his words, Brautigan packs his creel with evocative symbols. His stories are at once as open as the Pacific Northwest, and as meticulous as a water-bug on Salt Creek. Wandering from stream to stream, Brautigan small-talks, writes letters, concocts recipes, makes love and even catches trout. His stories collapse like an accordion, bending everything out of shape. It all takes place so fast that his books must be called subliminal suites…. (pp. 54-5)

Brautigan wants to befriend the earth, not shake it. His style and wit transmit so much energy that energy itself becomes the message…. Brautigan strains to live, he explodes every simile ("His eyes were like the shoelaces of a harpsichord"), makes all the senses breathe. Only a hedonist could cram so much life onto a single page.

Brautigan's collected poems, "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster," are too uneven to be truly satisfying. He lacks the abstract depth of Wallace Stevens and the focus of William Carlos Williams. The poems are too casual, like an untucked shirt….

"In Watermelon Sugar," a novel in three parts, is Brautigan at his best. Every page is gracefully complex. The characters in this naïve allegory are as sweet as sugar. The writing melts in your mouth. He creates a backwater civilization reminiscent of Tolkien, a fragile world of polite chitchat, talking tigers and multicolored suns….

"Our lives we have carefully constructed from watermelon sugar," says the hero, "and then traveled to the length of our dreams, along roads lined with pines and stones." Brautigan …—is carrying his craft down those same roads…. Traveling on sheer whimsy, the Brautigan novel speeds by like a dream, encompassing everything…. (p. 55)

Albert H. Norman, "Energy and Whimsy," in Newsweek (copyright 1969 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 29, 1969, pp. 54-5.

Guy Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar are experimental pieces of quite spirited conception. (p. 158)

Mr. Brautigan's solicitude for the world he lives in and his impatient grasp of essences continue from their clear emergence in this opening passage all the way through an inspired book. Trout Fishing in America is a person, a place, a quality; anything, in fact, the author surrealistically wants it to be. It functions as a nonsense phrase of great power, and the author's spirited faith that he need never explain it is the happy—and only—ground on which we may approach the book.

Most of...

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J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Richard Brautigan, in Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar] is funny but seldom satiric, sometimes bored but hardly ever angry, frequently happier than you but never holier than thou. One of his verses imagines "a cybernetic meadow/where mammals and computers/live together," a world of people "returned to our mammal/brothers and sisters,/and all watched over/by machines of loving grace"; and this gently witty reconciliation of disparate worlds is one of his repeated achievements. Another is acceptance. His existence is like ours, full of aggravations and failures, but without being at all Pollyanna-ish he manages to make the best—however...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Ron Loewinsohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One difficulty in reviewing Brautigan's books is that you're tempted to try to do in your own prose what he does in his. He makes it look so easy…. Many reviewers have tried to do that, & of course they can't. But I don't even want to review Trout Fishing in America. I just want you to read it because it is one of the funniest books you will ever read, a book you may not want to read on the bus to work because it will keep you laughing out loud & everyone else on the bus will turn to see what's the matter with you, but you won't be able to stop reading, or laughing. It is also a very moving book. Sometimes you will finish a chapter & you will just put the book down in your lap & look out the...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

Kate Rose

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading Mr. Brautigan's [Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt], I'm struck by the fact that [he] cannot be aspiring to poetdom as it is commonly conceived these days.

Brautigan's poems suggest his presence as an imaginative, sensitive, and unexceptional observer. However, they neither explore his personality nor offer a reader anything else on a very deep or elaborate scale. The poetry is not tense, not particularly noble, not, seemingly, aspiring to anything other than the presentation of somebody's reactions, clarified and reduced into tasteful bites. A simpler way of saying this is that Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt should be gulped, like a session of Laugh In, that Mr....

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Hugo Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though much has been made of [Brautigan's] years in the wilderness, it has fallen to him, as far as his poetry is concerned, to be the popularizer of other men's work. Somewhere in [The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster] you will find hidden the sweetened and simplified faces of Frank O'Hara, James Wright, Robert Creeley, Dudley Fitts, not to mention Buddy Holly, Walt Whitman and all. He is the author of two original and poetic prose works called In Watermelon Sugar and Trout Fishing in America which have become something of a cult on the West Coast. Short, visionary inscapes on the American nightmare, they might indeed have required some kind of exile to complete…. Sugary, predigested...

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Mason Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of an order apart from most books, "Trout Fishing in America" was a totally original novel plotted in the changing shapes of a heart-breaking symbol for what is happening to America. "Trout Fishing in America" was a legless wino, a cheap hotel, a revolutionary slogan chalked on the backs of schoolchildren; it was the political disguise of the murderous "Mayor of the Twentieth Century"; it was a brooding spirit that remembered "people with three-cornered hats fishing in the dawn" and Lewis and Clark discovering the Great Falls of the Missouri. It was dead, extinct as the dinosaur (trout had become steel, streams had become stores), but seemed to live, transformed again, in the life and prose and person of Brautigan...

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Thomas Lask

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Abortion," Richard Brautigan's new novel, is split almost evenly down the middle. Half of it is amiable fantasy, half realistic documentary so factual you can draw a map from its pages. It is possible to tie the two halves together symbolically or rather hang one half on the other. But that possibility depends more on the ingenuity of the commentator than on the merit of the work…. In spite of the fact that people come and go in this book and that part of it involves a journey by auto van, plane and bus from San Francisco to Tijuana and back, the work is essentially static. It never moves off center, never gets off the ground. One reason for this malaise is the author's catch-as-catch-can approach to the black...

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Robert Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Brautigan phenomenon; California filtered through Brautigan, has been working itself out, in prose and verse, for several years now. How far has it got, and where is it going? Like the hitchhikers who stand beside Route 1 thumbing rides simultaneously in both directions, it is a distinctive phenomenon which is hard to assess….

We begin by distinguishing: on the one hand there is Brautigan's poetry, on the other Brautigan's prose. About the poetry, I can't pretend to offer a very assured judgment. There is a great deal of it, and I haven't seen it all. What I have seen is in a minor key: it comes on rather like the more playful poems of e. e. cummings. There are lots of lively small poems...

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Joseph Butwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Brautigan's novels have taken their place among the standard extra-curricular reading of college students. Their special appeal to the young may lie in Brautigan's capacity to make a myth that satisfies the demands of recent American experience, for he writes refreshing comedy that happens to accommodate a growing sense of disaster. A young man in his latest novel says, "I think we have the power to transform our lives into brand-new instantaneous rituals that we calmly act out when something hard comes up that we must do. We become like theatres." Hard times are with us, and Richard Brautigan provides readers with the ritualistic and theatrical equipment appropriate for survival.

In The...

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Michael Feld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Psychiatrists] doing a roaring trade in rich young ladies who've lost the will to live tip Richard as therapy in an each way double with Christina Rossetti…. [He's] currently heavily backed by pushers of brown sugar and watercress and nut omelettes—people so determined to achieve a more beautiful and profound vision of things they reconcile the implacable eating of 'natural' food with the swallowing, inhaling and injecting of various chemical concoctions? Indeed, he's namedropped in most places where there's lots of sensitivity and modernity and drugs and no commonsense going on, where cool languid personalities slump about passing joints like sweaty kisses, speaking of power to the people and freedom and the...

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John Clayton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I want to talk out my feelings about Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America—about Brautigan's sense of life and about his politics. Because his politics are those of lots of my own people, maybe sometimes of my own life—and they disturb me.

Brautigan is talking … to the WE of a subculture—a subculture I'm a part of. He is creating for us a mental space called Trout Fishing in America where we can all live in freedom. He's not preaching about it to us: he assumes we're already there, or just about there. But I'm also in an unfree America, not by mental choice but by condition. And the politics of imagination is finally not enough for me. It's not enough for us. (p. 56)...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gurney: The other day when the review copy of Richard Brautigan's new volume of stories [Revenge of the Lawn: Stories: 1962–70] came in the mail, Ed and I got into a discussion about whether or not Brautígan's stories belong to the literary genre formally known as "the short story." I said I thought they probably didn't, that they seemed to me too short to be short stories….

Ed's reply to that was something like: bullshit, Brautigan's stories are prime short stories, absolutely within the tradition of the modern epiphany as perfected in this century by writers like Joyce and Hemingway….

Ed: [The] thematic similarities between "Forgiven" and [Ernest...

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Tony Tanner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Brautigan's writing seems to float easily away from the dreck of the contemporary environment] like clouds over the Pacific…. Although his work is indeed extremely funny, there is a pervasive sense of loss, desolation and death in it which amounts to an implicit formulation of an attitude towards contemporary America. The first word of his first novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur …, is 'attrition', and the book manages to combine fleeting reminiscences of the obvious attritions of the Civil War with the less obvious attritions of life on the Californian coast today. The book is the reverse of didactic, and one would be missing the whole point to look for a specific moral to it. In appearance...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What intrigues us most about Richard Brautigan's novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, is its strong resemblance to [Ernest Hemingway's] The Sun Also Rises and [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] The Great Gatsby, little as the comparison might be appreciated by the authors of those classic works. In narrative technique the novel most closely resembles Gatsby. Jesse, like Nick Carroway, is a first person peripheral narrator. The subject of his narration is a flamboyant, "romantic" character who, like Gatsby, reflects the materialistic values of the country. Gatsby and Lee Mellon decline in glamor in the course of the novels, but the former transcends his context and the latter does not. At the end...

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Cheryl Walker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Brautigan is an epiphenomenon in American literature. He seems to represent some sort of insubstantial alternative. While the academy of letters reads Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov, the kids read Brautigan…. His appeal consists primarily in an irrepressible optimism (probably the brand of a woodsy Pacific Northwest background), a style flashing with artifice, and a total disregard for effete university culture. Mr. Brautigan is not himself the product of American higher education or of much formal training of any kind. Furthermore, his fund of simplicity and optimism is a relief for some from the profound despair of writers like Beckett. To complete the picture, I need only add that his flashy technique, in...

(The entire section is 1209 words.)

John Ditsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Brautigan's fiction shares many of the qualities of his poetry—charm, brevity, whimsy, and in many cases a total inability to leave a residue in the consciousness. His narrative voice, in its matter-of-factness, resembles that of that other Californian, [John] Steinbeck, but lacks the older writer's coherent philosophy and sense of apparent purpose. Yet even in these respects Brautigan's writing seems consistent with that of the more intellectual practitioners of experiment fiction, such as Coover, Gass, Barthelme, and Barth. Moreover, Brautigan writes stories and chapter units of minimal length, like those of W. S. Merwin and Leonard Michaels. In addition, he is accessible on a level just a cut above...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Roger Sale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Brautigan … the only writer of the sixties recommended to me by students whom I enjoyed, [is] author of the charming Trout Fishing in America, and author, alas, of The Hawkline Monster, which is decidedly uncharming and literary, obvious, empty, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stuff…. There are maybe a hundred [edgeless and pointless] chapters in The Hawkline Monster…. When Brautigan tires of gunmen he writes about identical women named Miss Hawkline whose father made a monster, and when he tires of that he has the Miss Hawklines see the dead butler in the hall and say "I'd like to get fucked." It's a terrible book, deeply unfunny, in no need of having been written. (pp. 624-25)...

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Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When you take on the surreal you must clearly watch out for its near and merely embarrassing neighbours, triteness and banality. Richard Brautigan is not, on the whole, half watchful enough….

[The plot of The Hawkline Monster is one] that leaves one decidedly out of thrall much of the time. And as for Gothicism: as oddities, this lot scarcely packs much of a frisson. "What does supernatural mean?" Cameron asks. "It means out of the ordinary", one of the Misses Hawkline informs. But, though events in The Hawkline Monster can certainly range far out of the ordinary, the more bizarre they come the flatter tends to be their impact. The dull, accepting tone is largely to blame, and...

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Michael Rogers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The guileless and unprepossessing Brautigan style] has finally, after a few tentative passes, collided firmly with the harsh and nasty seventies.

Brautigan's sixth novel, "Willard and His Bowling Trophies," is essentially about sex and violence. Willard, in standard Brautigan fashion, really has very little to do with any of it. He is, in fact, a mysterious papier-mâché bird, housed off the lower floor of a two-unit apartment building, and surrounded by a collection of stolen bowling trophies. Precisely who stole the trophies is not clear, but the original owners are a trio of brothers who lose their jobs, self-respect, and ultimately commit senseless murder in a misguided attempt at revenge. It...

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L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It strikes me that the secret of Richard Brautigan's fiction and poetry is that, like the symbolism of D. H. Lawrence, it means exactly what it seems to mean. Trying to delve deeply into it is like trying to delve deeply into a cigar box; what's in it may be good, bad or indifferent, but there really isn't very much of it and its pleasures are soon exhausted. It may be a sign of the times (or something) and it is certainly a symptom of the current state of American fiction that some critics doggedly persist in treating Brautigan as if he were a Joseph Conrad instead of an Art Buchwald: it is such a blessed relief to find someone who writes so nicely. There is no denying that he turns a pretty phrase and does so...

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Robert Kern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brautigan's work in both poetry and prose … provides a post-modernist instance of primitivist poetics in as pure a form as one could wish and also helps to clarify some of the differences between modernism and post-modernism in general. (p. 52)

As a poet and maker of fiction, Brautigan seems to come as close to a painter like Grandma Moses as it is possible for a writer to do; though sometimes his allegorical intentions and utopian or pastoral politics suggest a greater affinity with the early nineteenth-century Quaker and primitivist painter of a long series of variations on the theme of the Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks. Insofar as his prose books can be considered novels, they are a...

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Duncan Fallowell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Willard and his Bowling Trophies is a humorous downtown fantasy and might strike someone not au fait with post-colonic literature as unusual, disgusting even. This is not so. Brautigan couldn't split an infinitive to save his life. In the manner in which he handles his God-given culture he could be the nearest America comes to producing an updated P. G. Wodehouse. But his originality, let alone longevity, has suffered from an overdose of small beer exacerbated by a material lack of concentration. The most concentrated sentence is 'After he came his penis would slowly soften inside of her and their bodies would be very quiet together like two haunted houses staring across a weedy vacant lot at each...

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Brad Hayden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [Trout Fishing in America] the trout stream is a central metaphor for the shrinking American wilderness and the social values which are associated with it. The narrator of Brautigan's novel seeks a pastoral life in nature but does not succeed; his search ends in frustration and disillusionment. Enroute he comments upon social and personal values in America with an equal sense of despair.

Brautigan's method, looking at society through nature, is not new. A number of literary artists and philosophers in various ages have done the same—the most notable of whom is probably Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, similarities between Thoreau's Walden and Brautigan's novel are very striking both in...

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Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a Barthelme-like exercise in discontinuous modes, lyrical, topical, and confessional, [Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel] is amusing but somehow self-cancelling. The parable about mindless public violence is too harmlessly droll, the love story too sentimental, the portrait of the artist too routinely self-loathing. Remembering Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, I would be glad to like Sombrero Fallout better, but his charm seems to be increasingly calculated. (p. 100)

Thomas R. Edwards, in Harper's (copyright © 1976 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the October, 1976 issue by special permission), October,...

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Dennis Petticoffer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brautigan insists that [June 30th, June 30th] is a "different" collection of poetry. Written in diary form, it contains impressions of his seven-week tour of Japan in 1976…. Taken individually, many of these poems do not hold up well. Brautigan himself concedes that the collection is "uneven." Taken together, it portrays a mood of alienation and loneliness, as might be expected when a poet finds himself immersed in an alien culture, unable to communicate with, or be understood by, the world around him. But "Japan" is not necessarily on the other side of the world—it can be just across the street. The book's prime appeal will be to college audiences, but it may prove less enticing than Brautigan's earlier...

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Mary Hope

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a newcomer to the Brautigan cult, I can only think that [Dreaming of Babylon] must be a bit of a spare-time exercise: an after-dinner conversational joke which got out of hand….

Much of the action takes place in the morgue, the cemetery, or the hero's head; either way, the effect is fairly deadly. Brautigan's style depends on the premise that one bad joke deserves another: he sets up what starts off as a respectable one-liner and then kills it stone dead by trying to make it into two. If he'd honed down the cracks, the book would be even shorter than it is, but much funnier. There is not much point in parodying a style unless there is a valid alternative statement to make: this is just a...

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Arian Schuster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[June 30th, June 30th is a] collection of eighty brief poems, several just fragments—written from May 13 to June 30th on a visit Brautigan made to Japan, somewhat in the spirit of a memorial journey for the Japanese and American war dead…. Like so many literary journeys, it becomes a point of departure for an exploration of the self in relation to the world of the nonself. The Brautigan wit is fleetingly present, but there is a haunting feeling of loneliness in the poetry—a sense of a stranger in a strange land—that ultimately makes Japan seem like a metaphor for alienation. Brautigan fans may like this; but he has moved away from the concerns of the young adult, and if one already has Brautigan books,...

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