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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.)
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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.
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[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.
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[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.
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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.
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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 what's printed in our time is either spiel or bilge. Mr. Brautigan locates his writing on the barricade which the sane mind maintains against spiel and bilge, and here he cavorts with a divine idiocy, thumbing his nose. But he makes it clear that at his immediate disposal is a fund of common sense he does not hesitate to bring into play. He is a kind of Thoreau who cannot keep a straight face.
His prose is handy with apt similes. "Like astigmatism, I made myself at home." His imagination is magnificently nimble. His sense of the ridiculous is delirious, a gift from the gods. "The Lysol sits like another guest on the stuffed furniture, reading a copy of the Chronicle, the Sports Section. It is the only furniture I have ever seen in my life that looks like baby food."
Mr. Brautigan is not a Surrealist, nor yet a fantasist. I would place him among the philosophers, for his central perception is that the world makes very little sense to a man with a plain mind. He has made his will stubborn against the tinsel and whorish fabric of society. He might even claim that he has described the world with a strong measure of accuracy; Lord knows novelists who sound a lot less peculiar than Mr. Brautigan have tampered with their subjects more than he to achieve such astounding fairy tales as the mysteries of Erle Stanley Gardner.
In Watermelon Sugar is a more sober and mysterious work than Trout Fishing in America. Mr. Brautigan calls it a novel, and it satisfies that designation in a very strange and new way. Trout Fishing is a festival, and invites a musical analogy; In Watermelon Sugar is myth, and is closer to the poem than the novel. Both these works show Mr. Brautigan to be one of the most gifted innovators in our literature. (pp. 159-60)
Guy Davenport, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1970 by the Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1970.
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[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 mediocre it might be—of a seedy world….
Brautigan's heroes are generally himself, more or less costumed; but unlike the modern author-hero he doesn't come on as a ramrod, a love machine, a superstar; in sex as in other areas he's mild, unassuming, and given to self-deprecation. In one of his verses, in fact, he laments: "If I were dead/I couldn't attract/a female fly." Such Twainian exaggeration and understatement locate Brautigan in an old tradition of West Coast humor, while the many fishing scenes recall the pastoral side of Hemingway. It's not a close resemblance, however. Hemingway's heroes go to nature (and women) to prove themselves and to escape civilization; Brautigan's couldn't care less about proving themselves, and they connect nature and civilization effortlessly.
Connection, in fact, is what Brautigan is best at; it characterizes his style. Here's his title poem:
When you take your pill
it's like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
lost inside of you.
His prose is even better, and is loaded with pleasing connections: "a few stubborn rainbow trout, seldom heard from, but there all the same, like certified public accountants"; "when the sun went behind a cloud, the smell of the sheep decreased, like standing on some old guy's hearing aid." Sometimes connection achieves larger ideas, for instance Shorty, in Trout Fishing, "a legless, screaming middle-aged wino … descended upon North Beach like a chapter from the Old Testament," but before Brautigan's through with him he's a Western Ratso Rizzo, foully lovable. And what a fine connection of disparates lies behind one of Trout Fishing's best chapters, "The Cleveland Wrecking Yard," in which the Yard has a used trout stream for sale (by the foot).
Alas for the hazards of being reviewed: Brautigan at secondhand is all too likely to sound merely whimsical and cute. He is not; what underlies these games is a modern fatalism, not maudlin fatheadedness….
Like his Confederate General from Big Sur …, Trout Fishing is about life in reality. In Watermelon, the scene is sweetly fantastic and the narrator is not a Brautigan but a simple-minded fellow chuckleheadedly pursuing happiness with, or at the expense of, two women. In the earlier novels the prosaic workaday surface of reality was repeatedly illuminated by the charm of the narrator's happy imaginings. In this one the spun-sugar simplifications of organized happiness the naive placidity of the narrator are repeatedly darkened by our perception of real misery, jealousy, frustration and unrequited love. It is more complicated technically and more disturbing emotionally than the earlier works, and it suggests that you should, while reading all the Brautigan now available, look forward to the Brautigan yet to come.
J. D. O'Hara, "Happier (But Not Holier) Than Thou," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.), January 11, 1970, p. 3.
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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 window for a while, trying to keep the fleeting savor of what Brautigan has made you feel, a feeling you will not have any words to describe. I don't.
Brautigan's language is magical, & absolutely accurate, a kind of lens which allows you to see his vision of America, an America you never suspected was there, but of course it has been there all along, & you have lived in it, & now you recognize it. His prose is a poet's prose, in which each word, each image, has been chosen with intelligent & sensitive care. Yet it is not "poetic," but usually flat, modulating at times into an intensely understated lyricism. (p. 288)
So it's a fun book, & a moving one. It's also an important book: it may be the Great Gatsby of our time. & I would ask those people who think it's not a novel at all, but merely a collection of amusing vignettes—What's Benjamin Franklin's function in the novel? How does economics function there? How does nature? How does the past—both of America's history & its literature—figure in it? Why are trout described in the second chapter as "a precious & intelligent metal," but not silver, rather steel? & having answered that, what is John Dillinger doing in there? Finally, how is the last chapter, together with its prologue, a final summation of a noble yet un-'Romantic' statement of the human condition?
In Watermelon Sugar is another story. Its atmosphere is at once concrete & evanescent…. The surface of the novel is gentle, even banal, but under that surface lurk predictability and repression—self-repression. The irony is all the more cutting for its subtlety. (pp. 228-29)
The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster collects most of the poems Brautigan has written & published over the past ten years. Most of them are short, & many of them are funny. There are some real gems here, poems that stand up to repeated readings: "A Postcard from Chinatown," "The Sidney Greenstreet Blues," "The Fever Monument," or "1942."… But mostly his poems are either very clever or very sentimental. Further, he seems not to have much sense of the possibilities the line proposes, so that the poems often seem like one-liner jokes chopped up into verse. But if you read these poems in the light of Brautigan's own "Private Eye Lettuce" …, you will see that he is concerned more deeply with naming things, or re-naming them, finding their true, secret name, than with any of the sentiments or jokes which form these poems' surfaces. That yields mixed results: while it's an admirable concern, it gets in the way of his perceiving the process involved in the things he names or defines. Definition is just that, a closing off, & what Brautigan leaves outside the door of classification is any acknowledgment of the on-going-ness of things, & of himself. That's why the poems are so easy to take. You finish one & go immediately on to the next, because the poems don't resonate beyond their final (usually very final-sounding) line. In his prose he gives himself more room & more time, & there he is more enduringly satisfying. (pp. 229-30)
Ron Loewinsohn, in TriQuarterly 18 (© 1970 by TriQuarterly), Spring, 1970.
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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. Brautigan is attempting to be an entertainer rather than a Great Figure in Literature, and that from anybody's point of view the attempt is worth having around. After all, his emphasis on entertainment is his distinction; attempts at presenting the thoughts of a plain man have been around since Catullus.
How, then, are we to be entertained? As entertainer Brautigan downplays himself and needs good jokes, which, short and strung together through the book, hit a response say, seven times out of ten. The material has a fresh touch, is clearly presented, and is delivered as a series of one-time tries. The effect he seems to be after is sensibility-tweaking. He presents a world which is comfortable, if pleasingly strange, and which will carry a reader along with very little effort. This makes him a good guest-room poet, if you like, but he does manage to tweak enough to make the show come off, one way or another. (And how much can be said of other poetry?) (p. 115)
Ideas, tough, involving ideas, are not Brautigan's speciality. He tends toward gestures and insights and words, but anyone who's been afraid of poetry because of its formality, glumness, bookish references, obscure, private visions, long words or politics can read this book. The man is not writing to poets or his educated peers; he may be writing instant culture, but he will be read. (p. 116)
Kate Rose, "The Grand Penny Tour: Brautigan's 'Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt'," in The Minnesota Review (copyright 1970 by The Minnesota Review), Vol. X, Nos. 3 & 4, 1970, pp. 115-16.
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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 and schoolgirlish, his naiveté is actually cynical it is so accurately researched to touch the dewy and vulgar adolescent heart. With his own heart safely given over to justified lines he has been able without a qualm to write down as low as needs be to reach that smiling majority who are always waiting…. He deserves a sucky medal with a picture of himself on it for his own personal sweetness. (pp. 83-4)
Hugo Williams, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1971), February, 1971.
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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 himself. Every chapter had a secret hook to set, a steel meaning in a sparely tied fly of anecdote and metaphor, a valuable and accurate surprise. Just another book like that is what you pray for every time you crack a new one.
The fact is we are still getting Brautigan writings from a time before "Trout Fishing" made the world his oyster. ["The Abortion"] has been around a while and owes more to "In Watermelon Sugar," which itself was written a couple of years or more before "Trout Fishing" was published. The commonplace short dialogues of greeting, eating and bedding—"Conversations and things that happen every day. (Work, baths, breakfast and dinner)"—that gave "In Watermelon Sugar" so many relaxed, seemingly vacuous pages illustrated the novel's point about peaceful coexistence with mortality. They also suggested analogously that with regard to literary mortality the way to sanity was "watermelon ink"—which one imagines to be vaguely pink and fading while one reads. The new book is written almost entirely with the sugar-water sprezzatura of an artist who hands it in to a dead-end library and never expects to see it again.
The story is simple and straightforward. Two people help each other out of temporary blockages; an abortion, ironically, the agency of their delivery….
[The book] addresses, in an oddly frontal way, the Women's Lib themes of abortion and sex-objectification. It will be read in part as a rather uncomradely attack on Brautigan's fellow girl-watchers, and perhaps as some sort of statement about the nastiness and dishonesty of our social and legal pressures around the subject of abortion. But it's doubtful if the author of "Trout Fishing"—who did his damning there in the permanent and hard, artistic war—has his heart in such a lazy undertaking. There is something spooky and funny here, pale pink and fading. (p. 4)
"The Abortion" is short, swift and formally neat, and though it contains some very offhand writing, this experiment along the limits of the watermelon thinness of Brautigan's ink is cheeky enough, and there are enough indelible stretches where the watermelon ink rinses out some India, to be just a little more than just another book. (p. 26)
Mason Smith, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 18, 1971.
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"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 page. He grabs at a chapter and throws it to the mat. But his victories are easy ones.
The author's flip attitude is like watered whiskey. Only a whiff of the original comes through. The off-beat, the surreal, the neat observations of "Trout Fishing in America" have been changed into self-indulgent literary ticks. And the manner shows, I won't go so far as to say that Mr. Brautigan is contemptuous of those who put down hard coin of the realm for his books, but the substance of "The Abortion" is thin to the point of insensibility.
In "The Abortion," the "I" who tells the story is in charge of a fabulous library, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a great place; books are never deposited and they are books that have only just been written. Anybody with a finished manuscript can bring it into the library and leave it there….
[Before] the reader knows it, or has a chance to back away, he is in the middle of a novel in which a guy takes a girl in out of the rain, they decide to share his bed, she becomes pregnant, they decide not to have the child. Sounds original, doesn't it? The last half of the book is a step-by-step account of how the two travel to Tijuana, how Vida has her abortion and how they return. Anyone interested in having such an operation in Tijuana or in the details of securing such surgery will find "The Abortion" tense with excitement. The rest of us (some 200 million maybe) will find it a paralyzing bore.
If one is determined enough, a moral can be drawn from this fiction. Maybe the library is the same way station for the unborn spirit as the abortion mill is for the unborn child. Maybe the author is condemning the waste in both instances. Maybe he is trying to draw attention to those inarticulate and dumb spirits who are unable to give form to their yearnings, who die unmarked and unnoticed in the man-swarm of humanity. Maybe—but I doubt it. For the book is so morally neutral, so entirely without nuance or reflection that it could easily be a chapter in a West Coast travel guide. No theorizing can prop up this jerrybuilt substitute for entertainment.
Brautigan has wandered a long way from "Trout Fishing in America." There was an irreverent, unstructured, slightly wacky quality to those sketches that revealed an off-beat mind, a flexible, informal and tangy prose style and an original way of looking at the commonplace….
And the life that wanders in and out of that book, defying the Establishment, normal economic laws and bourgeois morality, has a raffish and wry charm. But it's not a style that works with everything. "In Watermelon Sugar" was a feeble and amateurish exercise. It took 30 minutes to read and seemed interminable. There were things in it that could only be excused on the grounds that the author was being paid so much a word. "The Abortion" is not so great a failure, but it is a greater disappointment. Mr. Brautigan has let a good idea wither for lack of nourishment.
Thomas Lask, "Move Over, Mr. Tolstoy," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1971, p. 33.
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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 on small, occasional topics; considerable charm, a nicely understated wit—it is deft writing, and that, for a poet, is not much of a compliment.
One of the best things about this poetry is that it doesn't try very hard. Its metaphors drop neatly into place without any agony of thought or torment of feeling. The largest statements I have seen the poet undertake verge on sentimentality ("The Galilee Hitch-Hiker") or nostalgia ("1942"); a good deal of what he turns out is what used to be called jeux d'esprit, vers de circonstance, or some other French name implying more sauce than substance….
The prose pieces (one can't call them novels or even fictions—they may well go down in literary history as Brautigans) now number four, and, to this reader's taste, they are much more impressive than the poetry. But they are not easy to describe….
[In Watermelon Sugar] is a good place to jump off on one's Brautigan readings, precisely because it's so apparent that there is a great deal … to it. It seems to me a fable, but also a nightmare, of innocence. (p. 24)
Like Agnes Varda's lovely movie Le Bonheur, which it resembles in many ways, this fable of Brautigan's seems to me deeply ambiguous; you can read it forward (with Pauline and the iDEATH people as the civilized element) or backward (with inBOIL and pals as the outcast-pariah heroes) or neutrally, with a shrug of the shoulders for poor Margaret. Our narrator, with his aspirations toward a "gentle life," can't conceivably come off very well, and the simple fact that nobody in the book blames him for Margaret's death may be read as an invitation to the reader to do so….
Trout Fishing in America is the earlier … and, in this reader's judgment, the next best Brautigan; but one must note respectfully that it seems to have had a better press than In Watermelon Sugar. Probably this is because it feels like a bigger book. I found it more diffuse and episodic, a little more forced in some of its fun, a little more disposed to rely on obscenity for easy effects. Without any of the structure of In Watermelon Sugar, it is wilder and more fantastic in its use of language, more eloquent and various in its accounts of some very quirky people—a kind of visionary comic-book apocalypse about fresh-water Americans and their nature. If it gets less than top marks with this accountant, that's probably due to a basic preference for more controlled books which I couldn't begin to justify logically. Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar, whichever one happens to prefer, are a pair of vigorous and original books, and the crown of Brautigan's achievement so far.
By contrast, I couldn't get very excited over A Confederate General from Big Sur, the first of the lot…. The problem here is simply that, being unsure of itself, it tries too hard. In essence the book amounts to an extended version of those stories that begin, "I met this guy in North Beach last summer, you'll never believe it, was he wacky, just let me tell you." Self-consciousness is the curse of the Brautigan characters; when they start assuring us how quaint they are and performing quaint capers to prove the point, the cause is as plainly lost as it was when Longstreet called on Pickett to charge.
So it's clear, when one looks back over the line of Brautigans from last published to first, that the author has been growing in assurance, in control, in ambition. But the books are still very different from one another, especially in organization; and it wouldn't have been at all easy to predict, from the three previous ones, what the fourth book, just published, would be like. As a matter of fact, there is some reason to feel that, despite publication dates, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, may have been planned if not written before Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar. It is a good deal less grotesque and fantastic than its forerunners, a good deal less ambitious as well. It doesn't play as many tricks with the prose or with the surface of things; it is a milder, blander book than either of its immediate predecessors. (p. 25)
What makes the situation [in The Abortion] go is its radical instability. Our hero is presented as such a helpless innocent, Vida is so frantically desirable to all passing males, and the situation is so plainly fraught with the possibilities of hideous misfortune that one is spooked on every page by phantoms of multiple catastrophe. But, like all other Brautigan innocents, this pair seems to enjoy a special immunity. Evil quietly evaporates around them, and none of the hideous destinies to which Candide heroes are traditionally prone actually befalls them….
[By] the end of the book, our hero has built himself a certain status as practically everyone's favorite puppy-dog; and unless Mr. Brautigan is a much clumsier artist than I think him to be, he wants that fact to trouble the reader at least some.
The surfaces of the new book are a good deal less skewed than those of the previous two; it has none of those fey watermelons, trouts, and verbal knots in the grain of the narrative. What is queer about the world of The Abortion is mostly the librarian's exaggerated, artless simplicity of mind; it makes for a series of small jokes….
There is a touch of the cunning and tricksy about these jokes; one feels a deliberate element in their simplicity, so that the narrator seems already to have settled into his destined role as campus character. The worst things that can happen to him aren't very bad, and best aren't very good. He's evidently a victim of that creeping California disease which amounts to saying, to yourself or to others, "What the hell, I'm pretty much okay the way I am, right?" There are a lot of places in the world where it depends; there is a real chance you may be—oh well, like stupid or maybe infantile, and sometimes it even matters, to the point of doing something about it. Not here. It would be too much to ask of Mr. Brautigan that he commit himself to a point of view on his characters: it really would, that's not just sarcasm.
He leaves us the possibility of irony; nailing it down explicitly would narrow, not widen, his effect. His art lies in making things out of a scene, and the things he chooses to make aren't moral judgments, they're not even compatible with moral judgments. But the things he makes can and must involve large or trifling attitudes, maybe not toward people (I think Brautigan is too modern to care a damn about people), but toward the language and vision that are his special gift.
The Abortion, I feel, doesn't make generous use of the qualities manifested in the previous two novels. It isn't a bad book, it just isn't much of a book…. Brautigan has done too much in the genuinely imaginative, powerfully controlled way of vision to be accepted readily as an artificer of the country cute. (p. 26)
Robert Adams, "Brautigan Was Here," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1971 Nyrev, Inc.), April 22, 1971, pp. 24-6.
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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 Abortion the question of survival is raised by a girl cursed with beauty. (p. 52)
The trails of Vida form an implicit critique of our culture: The physical beauty, bombs, industrial proliferation, and commercial techniques we cherish have gotten us into trouble. And the price we are paying for them reverberates through our movie theaters and paperback bookshops—the temples of youth. A pile of money, an American flag, and a beautiful machine leave Peter Fonda's "easy rider" burning in a ditch, and his prophetic words, "We blew it," reach beyond the roadside into all aspects of our national experience. In The Abortion Brautigan tells that sad story in a new way. His Captain America is a woman, and the possibility of love and a fresh start survives the premature termination of life in America.
If Brautigan himself is a hero among students it is precisely because his writing is not academic, in the sense that an "academic" question produces no repercussions in the world. He creates a myth and convinces readers that he actually lives it. A new life can be reconstructed, he seems to say, out of the rubble of American failure, along the model of a renaissance that strangely follows abortion. Take a few steps back to the point where things began to go wrong and then start over again….
That a cult should grow around Brautigan is no accident: he plans it that way…. Everything he writes reinforces the modern sense that a literary style might also be a life-style. His writing is as brief and immediate as a telegram or a message left on a door for a friend. The dedication of The Abortion—"Frank: come on in—read novel—it's on table in front room. I'll be back in about 2 hours. Richard:"—sets the simple style of writing and of living, and Brautigan offers himself as an exemplar of simplicity in a complex age. Literature transforms itself immediately into cult.
A cult of this kind meets resistance. Can the simple persona survive in the aura of theatricality that surrounds Brautigan and his friends and disciples? Is it possible to make a myth about oneself and still remain sufficiently humble and human not to offend the audience? It may be that myths cannot be manufactured but must evolve slowly and accidentally to answer the unspoken demands of a society. Brautigan himself begins to confront these contradictions in his understanding that "we become like theaters" even as we perform our "brand-new instantaneous rituals." He recognizes that a mythology adequate to the task of reconstruction will need models and The Abortion is an attempt to supply one. (p. 67)
Joseph Butwin, in Saturday Review (© 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 12, 1971.
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[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 plight of the gipsies. Such figures are fully paid-up members of the ever expanding market for Richard and his california prose pertry, an eminently greasy brand of verbal psychedelicatessen. (p. 150)
I suffer an oleagineous tasting aftermath from Richard's recipes. I burp and adjudge the flavour is similar to (a) wet and spurious Winifred God. Or (b) Papa Hemingway—when the emphasis was on the pap and his heart was in the wrong place, i.e. in his mouth…. Or (c) the kind of honest injun copywriting favoured by cartels and monopolies in 'prestige' flashyglib ads appearing in the 'quality' press with the message, though we're vast we're no Sheriff of Nottingham, we're Robin Hood, do you realise half our turnover goes in developing new products for the benefit of humanity? (p. 152)
Michael Feld, "A Double with Christina," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1971), August-September, 1971, pp. 150-52.
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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)
[The critic proceeds to quote from the chapter "The Cleveland Wrecking Yard."] The view I'm offered at the Cleveland Wrecking Yard's window is of bitterness and deadening brick. But Brautigan lets me out of dealing directly with that desperate reality (and I want to be let out); he snatches me up inside his process of imagination—the magazines eroding like the Grand Canyon, the magical perception of the patients' complaints. I am given imaginative magic as a liberation from decay.
Later in the same episode, the narrator goes himself to the Cleveland Wrecking Yard "to have a look at a used trout stream." He sees the sign:
USED TROUT STREAM FOR SALE.
MUST BE SEEN TO BE APPRECIATED.
Another writer might have produced an obvious satire on destruction and commercialization of the pastoral—a trout stream sold by the foot length. Of course the American trout stream has been sawed into pieces, animals extra. But this satire Brautigan soft-pedals: if the pastoral stream is no longer available, the pastoral of the imagination is available. I am seduced by his stoned imagination, which can conceive of a trout stream sold by the board foot; which can make a pastoral in a junkyard. What I am finally hooked by is the sensibility which can create a lyrical space in our heads by play, by metaphor.
Brautigan's sensibility is personally liberating. It makes me happy by letting me feel my freedom. To the weight of this world he does not counterpose the concept of the imagination; he allows us to join him in his process of imaginative re-creation. Imaginative re-creation is not a fanciful critical term in talking about Brautigan; it is precise…. (pp. 57-8)
It is always a trout stream of the imagination that Brautigan fishes in. Like the stream the narrator as a boy creates out of a flight of stairs: "I ended up by being my own trout and eating the slice of bread myself." And even though Trout Fishing in America replies, "There was nothing I could do. I couldn't change a flight of stairs into a creek," we have already been part of exactly that magic transformation—and we are now presented with another: the transformation of a topic into a character, Trout Fishing in America, a character who signs a letter to the narrator with a wobbly signature; and into a book cover; and into the nickname of another character, Trout Fishing in America Shorty; and into a hotel; and into a gourmet…. (p. 58)
Finally, it's a place: "I've come home from Trout Fishing in America, the highway bent its long smooth anchor about my neck and then stopped." It's a place of rambling, of freedom, of closeness with a peaceful, natural world…. And if it's disappearing in a reality of institutionalized campgrounds with flush toilets, it remains alive in Brautigan's way of seeing. Salvation through perception: the politics of inner freedom.
The mental space we enter with Brautigan's narrator is shaped by an attitude toward language, by tone, and by narrative structure as well as by metaphor. It is a political space in that it reinforces "our" values—the values of a subculture that sees itself as flipped outside of goal-oriented, psychically and socially repressive, exploitative, aggrandizing American technological society. It is political in that to go into that space is to decide not to confront that other society. (p. 59)
Part of the magic [of Brautigan's writing] is in the discontinuity itself. If Trout Fishing in America is in part a life-style of freedom and rambling, these qualities are present not only in the metaphorical transformations and illogical connections but in the apparent looseness, casualness, easy rambling of the narrator's talk. It isn't true that the parts of Trout Fishing in America could be shuffled at random—some, for instance, are necessary preconditions for others to make sense; but we are intended to feel that there is absolutely no ordering. And within a chapter Brautigan creates the stance of careless rambler just as Arlo Guthrie does in the record of Alice's Restaurant. In "The Cleveland Wrecking Yard," for example, Brautigan begins with the experience of his friends, talks about the mansion of a dead actor, then about two Negro boys discussing a champion twister—all before he gets to the story of his adventure with the trout stream in the wrecking yard. (p. 60)
["Sea Sea Rider"] does wonderful things to my head. I feel the freedom, the openness, of the narrator's trip. He becomes a Sea Rider. I remember the song—sometimes called "See, See, Rider" or "Easy Rider"—from which the chapter title comes. It's a blues about rejection after love-making. But the problem of that blues is gone; getting laid is easy; the narrator becomes a Sea Rider, spinning his fantasies like wheels in the sea….
What the bookstore-owner-teacher does for the narrator [in this chapter], Brautigan's style does for me: his simple narratives, his synapses of logic, his assumption that we will of course accept what he says without asking for explanations, his rambling structure, his metaphorical shifts, his gentle pastoral imagery. We are become as little children, just as the listeners to Jesus' parables must have been as much transformed by the simple diction and syntax and childlike transitions as by the stories themselves. Sometimes Brautigan actually describes a way of life…. But it's not the description—it's my sharing, our sharing, in Brautigan's imaginative process that really does such beautiful things to us. (p. 63)
Brautigan's style says I can discard categorized living, since his perceptions are free to bounce in and out of categories at will. It says I can discard consciousness of causality and rational connections…. The style says I can ignore moral dicta, says this by its acceptance of people and events without even asking whether they should be accepted. Things simply are. And underlying this sense of life are gentleness and mental freedom.
Brautigan's style undercuts the long tradition of realistic fiction. Trout Fishing in America is not an anti-novel; it is an un-novel. Brautigan has no interest in character—in introspection or psychological insight, in interpersonal dynamics; no interest in materiality; no interest in time or causality. The book runs profoundly counter to the bourgeois instincts of the novel. It runs counter to the bourgeois world view of practicality, functionality, rationality. But it isn't a rebellious, individualistic book. Not at all. There is no rebellion in it. It accepts everything, even the world that is destroying the pastoral possibilities it asserts. And even though the chapters are often solitary adventures, it is still the book of a subculture, of a WE who are so different from bourgeois expectations as not to need explanations about our way of life.
I am not arguing—not at all—that Brautigan denies death and suffering. They are very necessary parts of the book. The bookstore owner floated on the Atlantic till "death did not want him." Again and again death and suffering are connected with beauty. That is the point—that Brautigan transmutes ugliness and sadness. (p. 64)
[The] episode "Worsewick" [is] a playful pastoral which contains elements of death as matters of simple fact. Brautigan doesn't solemnize or moralize death; it is just there. (p. 65)
The [narrator's] voice [in "Worsewick"] says that everything is cool. When a writer like Hemingway connects love and death it is to counter love with death and death with love. For Brautigan they are both okay.
The style of Trout Fishing in America sucks us into the politics of no politics—the politics of a subculture alive in another place. For Brautigan, America itself is "often only a place in the mind." Unfortunately, however, America is real…. Brautigan can get away with his freedom by living mentally in the interstices of the manipulative social structure and by ignoring both imperialism and racism. He is not alone there. Brautigan has been taken up as a tribal hero, along with the plain-folks Mister Dylan of "Country Pie" and the pastoral evocations of the uncomplicated South (The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival). He is part of what's been called the Woodstock Nation, living … as if "our" revolution had already happened. (pp. 65-6)
I, and many of my friends and students, having been very excited by Richard Brautigan, have begun to see why he's been so much a cult hero: like the Beatles, he gives people the assurance that they can be free and part of a community of free people, now. (p. 66)
I want to live in the liberated mental space that Brautigan creates. I am aware, however, of the institutions that make it difficult for me to live there and that make it impossible for most people in the world. Brautigan's value is in giving us a pastoral vision which can water our spirits as we struggle—the happy knowledge that there is another place to breathe in; his danger, and the danger of the style of youth culture generally, is that we will forget the struggle. (pp. 67-8)
John Clayton, "Richard Brautigan: The Politics of Woodstock," in New American Review (copyright © 1971 by The New American Library, Inc.), No. 11, 1971, pp. 56-68.
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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 Hemingway's] "Big Two-Hearted River" are as real as they are apparent: both are about solitary young men trout-fishing in streams in which they recognize some dark, mysterious power that fills them with a nameless dread when they feel it tugging at them. (Not uncharacteristically, Brautigan's sensitive, finely-tuned hero flees the ominous place in panic, whereas Hemingway's Nick Adams permits himself only the merest hint of a mental shudder before he manfully turns his back on his forebodings and stalks away.) But the point is that, in terms of both visual expansiveness and psychological complexity, "Forgiven" really does compare favorably to "Big Two-Hearted River."…
I think the density of the language throughout [Revenge of the Lawn] provides the best defense to date against the argument that Brautigan's work is too often slight, fey, even cute. He is still Richard Brautigan, of course, and there are still moments when his natural impulse to be playful gets the upper hand and trivializes an idea. ("The Gathering of a Californian," for instance, is rendered almost indecipherable by such overly cunning similes as "like a metal-eating flower" and "like the Taj Mahal in the shape of a parking meter.") But by and large the language in this book has a density and power unequaled anywhere in his work, not even in Trout Fishing in America: and there is scarcely a page without at least one image—such as the "large unmade bed that looked as if it had been a partner to some of the saddest love-making this side of the Cross," or the Point Reyes Peninsula landscape "which of course unfolded like layers of abstraction and intimacy constantly being circled by hawks," or the senile old lap-dog that "had been dying for so long that it lost the way to death"—which, if you yield to it, will break your heart.
Gurney: I think your phrase "yield to it" is important, because Brautigan is not a hard-sell kind of writer. It's not his style to overload the senses. He very softly invites you into his fictional world. But once inside, indeed, your heart may well be broken, because within these apparently delicate pieces are people up against the ultimate issues of love, loneliness, and death.
"Coffee" is a story about loneliness. A man goes to visit a former girl friend. She is not glad to see him. When he asks for a cup of coffee, she sets out a cup and a jar of instant coffee, puts water on to boil, then disappears into another room until he leaves. Then that night the man visits another ex-girl friend. "What do you want?" she asks. "I want a cup of coffee." The second girl tells him where the instant is, then she too goes into the bedroom and closes the door behind her. (p. 66)
The story is only four pages long, but this lonesome guy's world is so fully rendered that the reader is inevitably sucked into it, and made to feel pretty damn lonely himself. The story is powerful because it's about experience that everyone can claim as his own. Everybody gets lonely from time to time. And practically everybody drinks coffee. Readers can't help but be effected subliminally by its repetition throughout the story (21 times in four pages). After about the tenth time, the reader is damn near salivating, longing for the warmth of the cup in his hands, the hot liquid on his tongue, the vitalizing influence of coffee in his system. He wants coffee the way the protagonist wants coffee, which is to say, he wants love and warmth like the protagonist wants it, from some body on such a cold and lonely night as this.
Ed: Exactly; it's the old shock-of-recognition trick, it's what pathos is all about, actually—epiphany, too, for that matter—those painful, joyous moments when, in the artist's experience, we recognize our own.
And that sense of recognition is just as vital to good comic writing—of which there's an abundance in this book—as it is to pathos. (pp. 66, 68)
Then, too, of course, there is the other kind of comic writing, the rollicking, imaginative variety which depends on surprise and exaggeration, the sort of crazy, downhome burlesque that Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor [are] wonderfully good at….
Gurney: I'm glad you cited Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. I think you can go farther into Brautigan off of them than you can off of someone like Hemingway, who is a little too one-tracked in his attitudes and concerns to delight me forever. Hemingway doesn't laugh much. Maybe that's why he committed suicide. Suicide may have been inevitable for Hemingway, but you'd never think such a thing about Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, or Brautigan. Not that they are "happy" writers by any means. Their fiction can be as heavy and as grotesque as life itself, but what's refreshing, as you say, is that they have a supreme comic sense as well as a tragic vision. They're double-edged, sharp on both sides.
The fascinating thing about Brautigan is that he's more than double-edged. He's got more edges, more places to grab hold, than anyone else I can think of now writing. He's a poet and a novelist and a short story writer. And then he's something else besides. He's a curious kind of inventor, which takes me back to what I said earlier: that, to me, the short pieces like "Lint" and "The Scarlatti Tilt" do not fit the genre of the "short story" as I understand it, while "Coffee" and, say, "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane" (which encompasses an entire lifetime in five pages) and several others most certainly do. Brautigan is one of those rare writers who can operate within traditional form, and outside it. Most writers place themselves in one camp or another, seeking either to master an inherited set of rules or else to discover new ones. A story like "Coffee" is a story out of settled literary places. But when he writes that curious "Lint," I think Brautigan is out on the frontier of something. He goes out, and then he comes back in again. He plays in the interface, at that special meeting-place of underground and overground, of the familiar and the avant-garde. The tension between those opposing directions is one of the main sources of the energy behind the stories in this volume, stories about common things, told in very uncommon ways.
I think it's in there somewhere that Brautigan's enormous popular success is explained. He's popular because he is a man peculiarly of his time, and place. He's a very contemporary guy. He's a California writer, and his perception is "stoned." He gets behind the little episodes of these stories, gets into the emotion behind the action, in a way that more intellectual writers seem incapable of, or at least not very interested in. Feelings flow freely in Brautigan's fiction, sweet feelings as well as bitter ones, and that makes it a rare commodity in a country as violent and repressed as the United States. As a California writer, he stands as a kind of gift from the West Coast to the rest of the nation which, judging from the enormous circulation of his books, is a gift the country willingly accepts.
And Revenge of the Lawn is the latest of Brautigan's lovely gifts to us all. (p. 68)
Gurney Norman and Ed McClanahan, in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 97, December 9, 1971.
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[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 indeed it is very carefree. (p. 406)
And yet one feels that the engaging humour, naive and fantastic, is being maintained on the edge of a great emptiness…. The narrator offers multiple endings for his novel, but the dominant sense is of things thinning away into air, drawn back into the sea, fading away to the silent stillness of an old photograph…. This most insubstantial of worlds is being rapidly reabsorbed into an immense vacancy.
What the narrator has to sustain him is a gentle gaiety among words and a habit of instant fantasy. (p. 407)
One could call Brautigan's book an idyll, a satire, a quest, an exercise in nostalgia, a lament for America, or a joke—but it is a book which floats effortlessly free of all categories, and it is just this experience of floating free which is communicated while one is reading the book. There is certainly a feeling for a pastoral America which has vanished or been despoiled by mechanization, crime, accumulating garbage, and various kinds of poison and violence. In addition there is a sense that the original reality of America has been replaced by fabricated dreams of which the movies are the clearest example. (p. 410)
But the book is nothing like a polemic: Brautigan, it is clear, would not engage in anything so formulaic and recognizable as an established genre. That, after all, is someone else's movie. He has found himself a place beyond society and has exempted himself from all the usual modes and conventions. His novel is like no other novel and is one only because he says so, since it flouts all the usual prescriptions for the writing of fiction. The list of contents, the chapter divisions, the 'characters', the narrative episodes, all mock the forms of conventional fiction by pretending to add up to a recognizable structure which is not there when you come to look for it. He retains the illusion of orthodox syntax and grammar, but the sentences are continually turning off into unexpectedness in ways which pleasantly dissolve our habitual semantic expectations. At the same time Brautigan is constantly, cunningly, deviating into sense; there is enough linguistic coherence left for us to experience the book as communication, and enough linguistic sport for Brautigan to demonstrate his own freedom from control.
Among other things the book is a typographical playfield. On the title-page, the words of the title are arranged to simulate a trout jumping. In the course of the text we find blocks of words from signs and monuments, signatures, recipes, a square from a map, addresses, labels, quotations, notes, words from headstones, underlinings, and—'4/17 OF A HAIKU'. With such good-humoured caprices Brautigan shows how free he feels to make his own patterns, and how uncircumscribed he is by the traditional ones. Each chapter is a separate fragment, unpredictable because unrelated in any of the usual ways. Each one engages us for a moment with its humour, or strangeness, or unusual evocation, and then fades away. The writing is like skywriting; even while articulating it is receding back into silence, dissolving its own patternings before it gets fixed in them…. It is one of Brautigan's distinctive achievements that his magically delicate verbal ephemera seem to accomplish their own vanishings.
Clearly this might all add up to a recipe for whimsy, and a style with such a light touch cannot always hope to avoid coyness, false naivety and sentimentality. These are certainly to be found in Brautigan's work, but hardly at all in this novel. The evanescent quality of the writing, the elusive metamorphoses of sense and form (like clouds) nevertheless leave one in possession of something extremely haunting, evocative, and capable of making subtle solicitations to a whole range of authentic feelings. Unhysterical, unegotistical, often magical, Brautigan's work contains some of the most original and refreshing prose to appear in the 'sixties. (pp. 410-12)
[In Watermelon Sugar] is a charming and original work with touches of magic, but is perhaps too obvious in its parabolic form. It suggests a commitment to a rather too simple-minded version of things which the previous novels avoid. It is a pastoral dream in which the dominance of fantasy and imagination over the Forgotten Works and the wrecking yard is perhaps too effortlessly achieved.
To return to the last two chapters of Trout Fishing in America is almost to return to where we started, for they are about language. Brautigan first quotes passages from three books concerning the origin of culture and more particularly the mystery of the origin and evolution of language. He then adds that he himself, 'expressing a human need', has always wanted to write a book that ended with the word mayonnaise. The final chapter he calls 'The Mayonnaise Chapter'. It turns out to be a letter of condolences sent to some people on the passing away of Mr Good. The letter has a P.S. which reads, 'Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonnaise.' Master of his own verbal terrain, Brautigan has satisfied his need, indulged his whim, exercised his freedom—there are any number of ways of expressing the possibilities open to a writer in the City of Words. But this final gesture is not merely frivolous. In an earlier chapter while walking through one of the many graveyards in the book, the narrator takes note of the pathetic improvised markers on the graves of the poor. On one of them is a mayonnaise jar containing wilted flowers commemorating, so he gathers from the inscription, an eighteen-year-old boy who was murdered in a bar; it was left there by his sister who is now in 'the Crazy Place'. The mayonnaise jar rests on one of the graves of the American dream; similarly Brautigan's lexical games rest lightly, but distinctly, on the panorama of violence, decay and death which is recognized as the real world. A gift for play and a sense of annihilation come together in the placing of the last word of his book, just as they do in his work as a whole. Borrowing a phrase from Gary Snyder, we may say that Brautigan's writing offers 'Flowers for the Void'. In it we can feel his disengagement from a malign reality—not by ignoring it (for it haunts him), but by moving to that realm where all is Great Play and Transformation, the liberations of fantasy once again triumphing over the constrictions of environment. (pp. 413-15)
Tony Tanner, in his City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.; in Canada by Jonathan Cape Ltd), Harper, 1971.
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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 of each novel the most prominent character is the narrator and both have witnessed the end of a dream.
This is the novel of a generation, The Sixties, which many would consider equally as "lost" or even more so than that of The Twenties. It details the sort of good and bad times of a social clique that one finds in the Hemingway book. Both groups are expatriates, although in the more recent novel the locale and expatriation is the "Confederate State" of Big Sur. Still, like the Hemingway group and unlike the protagonists of Easy Rider, the Brautigan characters are instinctively trying to escape from America.
There is the striking parallel of the physical impotence of Jake Barnes with the concluding psychological impotence of Jesse.
In both works the "fiesta" ends in an existential hangover. The drugs and whiskey of the Brautigan novel correspond to the obsessive wine-drinking of the Hemingway novel.
The Twenties were faced with the search for a new morality in the light of the Dead Gods. The Sixties were similarly aware of that Gotterdammerung. Jesse, like Jake, is trying to evolve an ethic. Lee Mellon isn't even bothering.
Like The Sun Also Rises, A Confederate General is a war novel, or, more properly, a post-war novel. Hemingway, Mailer, Jones selected wars from their experience. Brautigan, like Stephen Crane, selects the Civil War. Brautigan, like Faulkner, feels that America has been in decline since that war. He calls it "the last good time this country ever had." (pp. 72-3)
For Brautigan the morally and spiritually crippling effects of the war have spread with Manifest Destiny across the continent, reaching at last the Coast…. (p. 73)
By mentioning him in the same breath with John Stuart Mill, Brautigan encourages us to think of Lee Mellon as a man of stature. He has like Mill a "truly gifted faculty." Whereas, however, Mill learned to translate Greek at the age of three, Lee Mellon's gift is for "getting his teeth knocked out."
The above is to some extent facetious, for Lee Mellon is a genius of sorts, a Mill without humanism. His ambition is to become "one of the dominant creatures on this shit pile." He is the master of the put-on, the con. He is ruthless and without a shred of altruism. He might, a century before, have been a robber baron. Hence, his surname.
In what sense is Lee Mellon a Confederate General? In that sense in which "confederate" equates with "counterfeit"? Probably. He is gradually reduced in stature throughout the novel, just as is his ancestor, August Mellon, in a series of flashbacks very reminiscent of the interchapters of [Hemingway's] In Our Time. Augustus Mellon turns out to have been no general at all, but merely a goof-off soldier, a sort of character out of Catch-22…. (p. 74)
But for about a hundred pages [Augustus'] exploits seem generally funny. Then we find ourselves in the same position in which Calder Willingham places us in Eternal Fire: we are rooting for the wrong side, or for both sides. (pp. 74-5)
Lee Mellon is man reduced to animal, man stripped of his ideals, and those who come in contact with him suffer a like fate….
We first notice Jesse's increasing mental instability about two-thirds of the way through the novel when he half-heartedly jokes about the damage to the soul of a steady diet of Lee Mellon's cooking. Up to this point, Jesse has remained in the background, portraying Lee Mellon for us, sometimes dazzling us with his imagery, but making no value judgments and telling us little of his own feelings. Soon, though, we find him irritated with Roy Earle's offer to buy Elaine for the night and, shortly thereafter, he states, "I wanted reality to be there. What we had wasn't worth it. Reality would be better." This is a crucial remark, for the progress of the book to this point (and the spiritual thrust of the Sixties as well) has been in the direction of a sur-reality, mind-expansion, a psychedelic rejection of the ordinary, the established, the banal. They have been playing at insanity, but confronted with Roy Earle they can see that real mental illness is no laughing matter. Worse, they have played insane to the point where they have actually gone a little mad, the lot of them. (p. 76)
Significantly it is in the midst of their highest moments on dope that Roy Earle, a nightmare image, appears "at the edge of the firelight. He was chained to a log he had dragged from God knows where. It was just horrible." Furthermore, it is during the the dope chapter that Brautigan switches from Civil War metaphors to images drawn from modern warfare. (pp. 76-7)
Walking, Jesse [later] says, "I would not fight it this time." Does he mean he won't fight reality or won't fight sanity? We're not sure, but on the next page he refuses to accept one of Roy Earle's fantasies—the first time in the book that any character has insisted on literal reality. (One recalls Jesse's fiction with Susan of not having seen Lee Mellon—even with Lee Mellon standing next to him.) (p. 77)
[We] come to a conclusion distinctly reminiscent of the catastrophe of [Nathanael West's] The Day of the Locust—the simultaneous disintegration of society and of the self. Insanity reigns, as the characters search for a lost pomegranate, but only Jesse is aware that there is anything crazy about the whole thing. And both books conclude near the Pacific limits of America, the nation of the Dream.
Jesse's final comment: "There was nothing else to do, for all this was the destiny of our lives. A long time ago this was our future, looking now for a lost pomegranate at Big Sur." There are strong echoes of Faulkner in the rhetoric and also in the theme of historical determinism. (pp. 77-8)
In the novel, Brautigan writes, "A seagull flew over us, its voice running with the light, its voice passing historically through songs of gentle color. We closed our eyes and the bird's shadow was in our ears." This is not prose logic. This is closer to the poetic logic of associations espoused by the Symbolists and Surrealists and condemned by such critics of obscurantism as Yvor Winters. (p. 78)
Brautigan's style is touched by the spirit of Dada. In the early chapters in particular there is an irreverence, a sansouciance, a willingness to trust to the random association, which places it in the tradition of Tzara, Arp, [West's] Balso Snell, S. J. Perelman, and the Marx Brothers. There is a sense of fun, a relaxed quality to the prose. Brautigan makes reference to [Kenneth] Patchen's Journal of Albion Moonlight, and that work certainly is a predecessor of the present novel, but we are spared the earlier work's heavy symbolism, its self importance, its verbosity—all the plagues of the off-beat novel. In Watermelon Sugar reminds one more of the Patchen novel.
The mention of Dada reminds us of two points that must not be obscured by our analyses: (1) although this is a serious work and definitely not an anti-novel, it is nonetheless a very funny book as well, especially the early chapters … and (2) one runs the risk of over-interpreting any work that rings of Dadaism—Brautigan is surely not one to bind himself too rigidly to consistency, symmetry, the unities. He rules by fiat.
The novel might also be approached as a series of character studies of the young women of the Sixties, reminiscent again of The Great Gatsby with its incomparable cameos of Daisy, Jordan Baker, Mrs. Wilson…. (pp. 79-80)
[Elaine] is the most complicated and profound of Brautigan's portrayals. (p. 80)
Jesse provides symbolic keys to her personality by linking her with Alice and Ophelia. For Alice was, after all, the prototypal woman of the Sixties (cf. the Jefferson Airplane's hit, "White Rabbit."). Alice is the queen of psychedelia, she who dispenses the pills that make you larger and the pills that make you smaller. Elaine is perfectly at home in the "wonderland" of Lee Mellon's Confederate State of Big Sur. Ophelia, like Alice, left one insane world for another.
Brautigan concludes the novel with 186,000 alternative endings per second, of which several are sketched for us. The endings represent stylistic variations. Jesse's breakdown and the search for the pomegranate are not contested….
The endings produce a deliquescent effect, a Tempest-like dissolution but without the harmony of Shakespeare's play. (p. 81)
The world of the novel is one devoid of moral and psychological constants. Elizabeth and Elaine have learned to cope with such a world. Lee Mellon rises to military dictator. It is more a commentary on the world itself than on Jesse that he simply can't handle it. It is the mark of tragic heroes, Hamlet for instance, that they are incompatible with the world. (pp. 81-2)
Lee Mellon's great-grandfather, Augustus Mellon, died in 1910. Brautigan reminds it was that ominous year in which Mark Twain also died, and the year of Halley's Comet. Is this an effort to reinforce the whole theme of America in decline?…
There is a schoolteacher from Jesse's boarding house who journeys to Europe. He dies on the gangplank while returning home: "He didn't quite make it. His hat did though. It rolled off his head and down the gangplank and landed, plop, on America." Is this a parody on America as the promised land? Cf. Elia Kazan's America, America….
To come full circle: like A Sun Also Rises, A Confederate General from Big Sur is a very funny, very sad, and very important novel. (p. 82)
Gerald Locklin and Charles Stetler, "Some Observations on 'A Confederate General from Big Sur'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique 1972), Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1972, pp. 72-82.
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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 reality concealing a great deal of carelessness, on first reading must strike some readers as more exciting than the whittled style and carefully constructed works of Borges.
Thus he has risen almost by accident to a prominence far beyond his expectations or desserts. He emerged conveniently at a time when surface display is applauded by many readers, weary with education and its sacred fund of difficult literary exercises. The convenience extends to his natural bent toward living close to the earth which coincided happily with a burgeoning interest in ecology and the retreat from the cities to a more rural existence. There is no doubt that Mr. Brautigan has become a kind of cult figure. (pp. 308-09)
However, it is not fair to limit the appeal of Mr. Brautigan to the young. An enormous number of reviews have appeared in a wide range of journals which indicate that many members of the older generation have fallen under his spell as well…. (p. 309)
[Trout Fishing in America] is a collage of scraps about life in California, about the Pacific Northwest, about various experiences trout fishing, all of which the author seems to want to coalesce into some kind of statement about America itself, often as he says "only a place in the mind." Unfortunately, Mr. Brautigan's mind does not seem to be able to concentrate on anything long enough or hard enough to discover its meaning, to unlock its mystery, to do much more than make a few stray notes about the logistics of experience.
The logistics of experience are precisely what Mr. Brautigan seems to be interested in. His characters are hardly characters at all but they do interact. Thus gesture replaces psychology, travel replaces self-exploration, and accidental disappointments replace existential despair. Mr. Brautigan's characters are not alienated and the America he describes in Trout Fishing is sometimes unjust but never hostile. Unanalyzably present and mutely assertive, America becomes a mere extension of his ego like the various women who appear and disappear throughout his work.
The source of interest in this world comes from Brautigan's liberal use of tricks, puns, wild images, and surprising juxtapositions. (p. 310)
Mr. Brautigan is sincere, or would at least like to convince the reader of his sincerity. Unfortunately, one is hardly repaid for the sentimental flaccidness of his prose by the experience of feeling that he might after all be serious. Hovering behind many of his stories, behind "The Surgeon" in Trout Fishing for example, is a desire to flaunt the author's moral sensitivity. In The Abortion it is Vida who decides to get rid of her baby but it is Mr. Brautigan who looks for the credit of her decision. This leads to a kind of sententiousness on the part of the character which hardly seems necessary in her situation.
Vida: Maybe another time, perhaps for certain another time, but not now. I love children, but this isn't the time. If you can't give them the maximum of yourself, then it's best to wait. There are too many children in the world and not enough love….
The sentiments are respectable enough and yet they sound maudlin because they are expressed in prose with so little originality, so little bite to it. They are the well-chewed maxims of sociology texts. The sentimental Mr. Brautigan peeps from his pages so often in moments like this that one is tempted to cultivate an acerbic irony just to freshen the air.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Brautigan for all his attempts to be part of the avant-garde often falls into the very old pit of the moral fable. (pp. 311-12)
What Brautigan does well—the single insight about fleeting human experience—is more suited to poetry than it is to prose. In The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster he occasionally hits it. "Widow's Lament" which follows in full is nice in its minor way.
It's not quite cold enough
to go borrow firewood
from the neighbors.
However, such understatement is rare, and more often than not Mr. Brautigan's poetry simply illustrates his lack of understanding of the medium. His lineation is based on grammatical units rather than on any principle inherent in the poem itself. Furthermore, he does not know how to build: development of character or statement or scene is as alien to his poetry as to his prose.
Some readers have mistaken this weakness for a statement about the meaninglessness of existence, the fragmentary quality of experience, the mute surfaces of modern life. Unfortunately, Mr. Brautigan himself brings events into moral relations which his readers are so kind as to forget. In "1692 Cotton Mather Newsreel" a child's prank becomes emblematic of the New England witch hunts and the genocide of Nazi Germany. The story itself does not in the least warrant such extensions of meaning. It sounds like an incident from To Kill a Mockingbird, though Harper Lee never made such grand claims as these. A couple of boys dare each other to sneak into the house of a helpless lady whom they think of as a witch. One boy completes the dare and then, frightened at himself, runs screaming away, joined by his pal outside who also begins to scream. The story ends: "We ran screaming through the streets of Tacoma, pursued by our own voices like a 1692 Cotton Mather Newsreel.
This was a month before the German Army marched into Poland."
There are, of course, other writers in America today who use the fragmented series to form a collage. William Gass' "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" and Donald Barthelme's "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" are two works of fiction which succeed brilliantly at Brautigan's game. Gass gives a more complicated picture of America in his Indiana collage than Brautigan does in the whole of Trout Fishing in America. Furthermore, Gass like Barthelme says a great deal that is interesting about the creative process as well. Both men keep one guessing, keep one's mind awake and working even when they are relating a seemingly meaningless list of facts. Brautigan, on the other hand, is all somersault, all splash and glitter. One grows weary of this and stops paying much attention to the pages as they turn. There is no organizing consciousness behind the phenomena he presents to our view. It's only some kind of shell game with Brautigan hoping he can keep your interest distracted from the fact that there is nothing under his shiny cups after all. (pp. 312-13)
Cheryl Walker, "Richard Brautigan: Youth Fishing in America," in Modern Occasions (copyright © Modern Occasions 1972), Spring, 1972, pp. 308-13.
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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 sentimentality and mass-art: obviously beyond Rod McKuen, but perhaps on a par with Kurt Vonnegut.
Brautigan's Revenge of the Lawn … is similar in tone to Confederate General from Big Sur, In Watermelon Sugar, and his best known work, Trout Fishing in America. If it lacks the slackness of The Abortion, its predecessor in publication, it shares with it an only temporarily disarming casualness about the motivation for the creative act…. Autobiographical fragments, often achieving easy effects, even flirt with the maudlin, as in "One Afternoon in 1939," where Brautigan repeats a daughter's favorite story about her father as a child. A little charm goes a long way, and Brautigan has the good sense to keep his pieces short, as much out of prudence as out of art. Wit is the soul of his brevity, time-killing his morality, and the experience of others a kind of clay: "I put it in my pocket. I took it home with me and shaped it into this, having nothing better to do with my time." Even in the more successful stories, like the tightly-constructed "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane," where the experience of recounting a failed man's life collides with the facts of his death and the necessity of informing his daughter, we are given a clue to Brautigan's suspicions of conventional fiction: "Always at the end of the words somebody is dead." (pp. 304-05)
John Ditsky, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1972, by the University of Georgia), Fall, 1972.
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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)
Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.
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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 there is little to be said for it as a narrative means except perhaps that it can welcome the ordinary quite unhectically. It is extremely liberating to find everyday things like four-letter words, the sexual act, and the desire of women for men, making for once an unstrident appearance in fiction. "'Fuck me', Magic Child said…. Greer blew the lantern out and she fucked Greer first."
But even—perhaps especially—in regard to sexual events narrative inertness speedily numbs. In fiction where nothing is allowed to perturb, the reader quickly feels nothing matters all that much. "An Early Twentieth Century Picnic" is the chapter heading when Hawkline Manor blazes, the Monster dies, and "a scientific dream" ends. But the novel is much too enervated to make the implied case about our times actually stick on anyone or anything.
Valentine Cunningham, "Whisky in the Works," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 11, 1975, p. 389.
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[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 is, in all, a fairly slim story for 167 pages, but then the art of loose unraveling is a Brautigan cornerstone. This time, however, the unraveling is not a very happy process….
While the rest of the book never gets much more intentionally unpleasant than the first few pages, it doesn't get much lighter, either, and the Brautigan humor that used to pop up in even the grimmest places is here little in evidence….
Brautigan's most durable work, in fact, has been his short fiction and verse—shorter pieces containing wit, innovative imagery and unexpected turns of phrase that will almost certainly retain a lasting audience. "Willard," unfortunately, shows few of those virtues.
Perhaps Brautigan should make a brief retreat from the novel form. Or perhaps that flat, almost banal, ingenuous style, that worked so well for wistful depictions of loves lost and gained, of good luck and bad luck and loneliness, just isn't right for a long bleak gaze at unhappy sex and senseless murder. (p. 4)
Michael Rogers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1975.
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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 often; it is his greatest gift, and not one to be stinted. But it should also not be overlooked that turning a pretty phrase is just about all that he does. There is a streak of sadness in him that is refreshingly without self-pity and a streak of kindness that is almost magically free of condescension, but the fact remains that he is a constructor of sentences, not a fabricator of situations. When he looks out on the world, he sees shapely prose and not the dark and vagrant mysteries of the human condition. The reader will find no sense of majesty here, or of its loss, no irritating complications such as madness and thwarted hope, no terror but a good deal of pity. Richard Brautigan will give no one bad dreams. He is sorry for us, and he is fun to read. When one has said that about him, one has said about all there is to say.
Willard and His Bowling Trophies finds the mixture much the same as before….
I think the bowling trophies and the Logans' search for them are meant to represent the sleaziness and degrading pointlessness of American life. I think Brautigan thinks so too. (What Willard means is anyone's guess; I think Brautigan wants it that way.) The novel tells the story of the end of the brothers' three-year quest. It is not a happy ending but, like everything Brautigan attempts, it is nicely done.
Richard Brautigan has a sort of modified Midas touch: instead of gold, everything turns into feathers. They are handsome feathers and they have been arranged with the skill of a Japanese floral designer; I am going to place the book in my extensive collection of Brautiganiana, with my thanks to the author for having provided me with a relaxing 90 minutes, my face sometimes touched with the ghost of a smile, sometimes with the ghost of a frown. (p. 30)
L. J. Davis, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 20, 1975.
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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 re-invention of the novel, a project carried out in seeming ignorance of the history of literature and representing a kind of childhood of fiction, personal to the point of self-indulgence, open-ended, radically picaresque. This is probably most true of Trout Fishing in America, which often gives the impression of being invented or created ex nihilo, in a kind of isolation from the entire world, past and present, of literary method and discourse. But on another level Brautigan's ahistorical naiveté is deliberate, a calculated assertion of freedom from convention or the willful and sometimes arbitrary satisfaction of a whim. "Expressing a human need," he says near the end of Trout Fishing, "I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise." And he then proceeds to fulfill the wish by giving us … "The Mayonnaise Chapter."… Thus Brautigan ends his book by introducing into its imaginative confines an artifact (whether invented or authentic makes no difference) that could never be mistaken for "literature" but that is a fully serviceable if highly oblique metaphor for his vision of pathos and continuity in American life. Brautigan's willingness to use such texts, the fact that he grants them entry into "literature," is indicative of his primitivist impulse not only to clear the ground but to widen it as well, to make it hospitable to utterances and verbal shapes and even inarticulate desires whose literary value and viability are essentially unrecognized. To this extent he goes even further than [William Carlos] Williams in the democratization of literature, in the offer of recognition and "a say," so to speak, not only to the ordinary and the familiar but to motives and impulses that just barely make their way into written form. (pp. 53-4)
It is tempting, though probably misleading, to regard Brautigan's work as a revolutionary act of sabotage directed against the institution that American literature becomes in [the final image of his short story "1/3, 1/3, 1/3"]. He wants, after all, not to destroy the institution but to throw open its gates and allow for a greater intermingling between what goes on inside them and the rest of the verbal world. In the larger field of his fiction, at any rate, the distinction between his own sophisticated writing and the primitivism of his sources and subject-matter remains clear despite the intermingling. But in his poetry we come into contact with a voice and a strategy that can usually be categorized as belonging pretty definitely to the primitivist side of the distinction. Its minimalist tendencies, along with the gentle, almost unconscious wit and innocence of its speakers, suggest that in his poetry Brautigan is viewing the world from inside a primitivist perspective as opposed to the juxtaposition and manipulation of several perspectives that take place in his fiction. Nor do his poems carry the same sorts of social and political implications to be found in his stories and novels. For the most part turned in upon themselves, they are almost narcissistic in their self-involvement and self-regard. (p. 55)
More than anything else, it is probably the flatness and the apparent artlessness of his poetry that are boring and even offensive to some of Brautigan's readers. But it is precisely these elements that constitute what is meant by a primitivist poetics (though Brautigan, admittedly, takes them to a blatant extreme). His disregard for the conventionally "poetic" is grounded in the assumption that anything more than a direct, immediate and simple response to things would be dishonest, while on another level it implies that he does not know how to write in highflown, literary language, which he distrusts anyway as a distraction, an intrusion between him and unmediated experience. But the most fundamental assumption behind this resistance to the "poetic" in Brautigan is that "poetry" does not reside in language or even in the text of the poem; it is, instead, a latent possibility in reality and can "happen" at any moment. In this sense his poems are opposed to the romanticism of the confessional mode, in which it is assumed that the poet is a special person whose perception is privileged and whose work gives voice to experience that is unique and intensely charged. For a poet like Brautigan …, poetry is whatever happens to him, a continuing, everpresent possibility, and he is, almost helplessly, its servant, rather than the other way around. In one poem he records how he has to get out of bed and put his glasses on in order to write it down, so that a good deal of his poetry amounts to a commentary on itself. Accordingly, Brautigan's poems are often reproductions of the circumstances which brought them into being…. [For] example, "April 7, 1969":
I feel so bad today
that I want to write a poem.
I don't care: any poem, this poem.
Poetry of this sort works like a self-fulfilling prophecy and involves a kind of magic. It delights and surprises because it is so outrageously self-conscious. Before our eyes a desire to write transforms itself into something written. A desire to produce a poem, by virtue of a sheer act of self-recognition, becomes a poem. There can be no better dramatization of the notion that poetry is an act of recognition as well as one of craft, and in Brautigan the craft is pared down to the recognition itself. The result may be disturbingly quiescent in the sense that, given the attitudes behind such work, the writer is left helpless before experience, neither exercising control over it nor attempting to interpret it. It may be artless in fact and even trivial, but the undeniable insistence in such writing is that poetry is ultimately located in experience itself, an insistence that demotes the text to an occasion of recognition. And what is recognized is that the true ground of poetry lies beyond all texts, in the world outside the institution of literature. (pp. 56-7)
Robert Kern, in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1975 by Chicago Review), Vol. 27, No. 1, 1975.
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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 other.' A minor planetary system spirals inside that sentence. He used to be throwing them up all the time.
Stretched beyond endurance, with these big gaps all over the show, the book is finally embarrassed by the exaggerated attention brought to bear upon its whimsy. 'They would tear a nice hole in you and provide you with enough death to last forever'—ugh, coy, and it is often like that. Even the basic idea is forced, a Caesarean attempt at lunacy. The Logan Brothers are nice boys until one day their bowling trophies are stolen; they hit the road to recover them in an anti-social frame of mind, and end up committing murder on a peculiar couple called Bob and Constance who are trainee sado-masochists innocent of theft.
The funniest episodes observe this couple's entanglement with venereal warts. (p. 30)
Duncan Fallowell, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 29, 1976.
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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 the form their arguments take, as well as in the arguments themselves.
Both works are written as first person narratives. Each reflects upon experiences in nature which conveniently span one year's time, and consequently, both have (in Charles B. Anderson's words on Walden) "sought an asymmetrical pattern that would satisfy the esthetic sense of form and still remain true to the nature of experience, art without the appearance of artifice."… (p. 21)
On a surface level, Brautigan's work appears to be a series of disjunctured ramblings (interestingly enough, the same criticism was made of Thoreau by his early critics) with no apparent form. Yet like Walden various levels of structure do appear to serious readers. The most obvious is that structure of a year's quest. It begins with the narrator's search for an amiable trout stream and terminates with the last chapters commenting upon the disappearance of nature in America. The work ends with the narrator and his family having decided to live in a friend's cabin in California.
A similar structure is also found in Brautigan's treatment of the narrator's maturation into manhood and the loss of innocence through knowledge. The narrator's personal growth parallels the picture of nature he presents. The wilderness, which represents a kind of innocence, is fouled by society, while the narrator's boyhood idealism turns into disillusionment. By using flashbacks of past life in the one-year narrative, the two levels of experience complement one another. Thoreau, of course, does much the same in his "digressions" in Walden. He uses his discussions of his more metaphysical concerns to color his commentary on nature. Brautigan's method in handling nature is also similar to Hemingway's. Like Jake Barnes fishing the mountains of Spain in The Sun Also Rises, Brautigan's narrator seeks through nature a means of communing with the surrounding world. Neither of the characters is highly successful. (pp. 21-2)
Trout Fishing in America conveys its thematic message through a series of short episodes concerned with the materialistic wasting away of the American wilderness and the decay of personal morality. Like Thoreau among the ponds surrounding Concord, Brautigan's narrator sojourns through the wilderness of Idaho hoping to find idyllic meaning in a primitive natural order, to be [in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson] "part and particle" of the organic harmony between fish and stream, animal and forest. This then is related through episodes describing direct natural experience of nature: And within this naturalist order is intertwined, in a Walden-like manner seemingly at random, episodes which deal with society and the narrator's personal level of awareness of the world surrounding him. For example, in one of the beginning chapters, "Another Method for Making Walnut Catsup," the concept of trout fishing in America is personified as a rich gourmet. In this chapter this character "trout fishing in America" and his girlfriend, Maria Callas, prepare exotic, yet homemade, dishes together in the moonlight, "on a marble table with beautiful candles"…. At first a reader might be taken back. What does this chapter have to do with the book's structural order, why is it there? One reason is found in the chapter's ritualistic use of language—the language of recipes and of cause and effect. The primary connotations of such language concerns order: follow the prescribed steps and the desired result will always be attained. And, by introducing Maria Callas, a glamorous and famous woman, the scene takes on the added connotations of the American Dream: follow the prescribed steps and success will naturally follow. The concept of formula is stressed and a kind of ordering is presented; Maria Callas then smiles and the moonlight comes out. Thoreau does the same in Walden through his early presentation of the ordered life. He certainly does not have a character comparable to Maria Callas but from the recipe for financial living which is presented in Walden's opening chapter "Economy" to the final rebirth of spring in the work's latter stages, Thoreau too definitely stresses order and harmony. (p. 22)
The basic structure of Walden leads to transcendence, from the climactic reflection of the heavens in the waters of Walden pond to nature's, and Henry David's, renewal and rebirth with the coming of spring. The structure of Brautigan's novel, however, leads to frustration. Instead of achieving his desired unity with nature, Brautigan's narrator finds disjunction. The major significant difference between Trout Fishing in America and Walden is that in Brautigan's story there is no personal transcendence. Yet, this brings out the logical question, if the methods are similar, why is the end result not the same?
The answer lies in the physical reality of Walden's nature in contrast to its theory of nature. That is, such critics as Anderson have noted the importance of the proximity of Concord to Walden pond. Thoreau in theory was able to merge himself in the wilderness despite the society which enveloped it. But the fact does remain that in his southwesterly walks Thoreau did face an essentially unexploited continent in America. A virgin wilderness may not have existed around Concord, but it did hypothetically exist for Thoreau in America's western regions.
For Brautigan's narrator no such conceptual nature exists. Indeed, the most significant aspect of the work is that for the narrator such nature does not in reality have substance. Even though the primary level of description concerns the narrator's direct experience with nature, time after time he journeys into the wilderness and is frustrated. (p. 23)
Society itself occupies a greater role in Brautigan's narrative than in Thoreau's and is used as an essential manifestation of Brautigan's novel failing to achieve satisfaction in nature. The mentality and values of the society Brautigan describes accounts for the narrator's failure to find the pastoral life. Of course, the interpretations of experience which Thoreau and Brautigan employ are different. To Thoreau experience is seen on a cosmic and metaphysical level: man achieving a synthesis between himself and the natural world which in turn unifies him with what Ralph Waldo Emerson identified as the "over-soul." Brautigan is less concerned with man's position with the cosmos than he is with man's position in society itself. Trout Fishing in America is basically social criticism of our contemporary American society. And while Thoreau certainly criticizes society in Walden, his emphasis is upon the individual ascension of man into universality. (p. 24)
Brautigan's final commentary on life in contemporary America is pessimistic to say the least; it's certainly not like Thoreau's commentary in the final stages of Walden, which ends optimistically. Thoreau is successful in achieving his dream, whereas Brautigan's narrator is not. Yet all is not hopeless in Brautigan's world. Mention is made periodically thoughout the book of "Trout Fishing in America Terrorists"; persons who oppose the society and, like Thoreau, live according to the dictates of conscience rather than those of social law. Brautigan's narrator too is not crushed by the world he views. Like Thoreau, he moves on looking forward to live new lives in the future. (p. 25)
Brad Hayden, "Echoes of 'Walden' in 'Trout Fishing in America'," in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, July, 1976, pp. 21-6.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 89
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, 1976.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145
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 works. (p. 465)
Dennis Petticoffer, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, February 15, 1978; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), February 15, 1978.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160
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 thin idea, made thinner by the disparity between the master's theme and the pupil's variations. (p. 24)
Mary Hope, in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 22, 1978.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 143
[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, skip this one. (p. 18)
Arian Schuster, in Young Adult Cooperative Book Review Group of Massachusetts, December, 1978.
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