No Light on in the House

August Kleinzahler

  • An Unfortunate Woman by Richard Brautigan
    Rebel Inc, 110 pp, £12.00, July 2000, ISBN 1 84195 023 8
  • Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-70 by Richard Brautigan
    Rebel Inc, 146 pp, £6.99, June 2000, ISBN 1 84195 027 0
  • You Can't Catch Death by Ianthe Brautigan
    Rebel Inc, 209 pp, £14.99, July 2000, ISBN 1 84195 025 4

Bolinas is a sleepy little seaside community about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, at the end of a long, windy road over the hills. It isn’t easy to find the turn-off, and over time residents have put up misleading signs or camouflaged helpful ones in order to discourage tourists. For many years a fair number of artists and writers have made Bolinas their home, or one of their homes. One of them was Richard Brautigan. When I gave a reading 16 years ago at the Bolinas Public Library, a couple of Brautigan’s old friends from his North Beach days in the 1960s told me that he had recently turned up in town. I remember hoping that he might come to the reading if he had nothing better to do. But there was little chance of that. Brautigan was lying dead in his Bolinas house, having taken a .44 calibre handgun and shot himself in the head. His body lay there for weeks until finally discovered by friends.

It seems odd now to recall the excitement that attended the publication of his novels, stories and poems in the late 1960s. Like a new Bob Dylan album, each book was an event: Trout Fishing in America sold over two million copies. There was in the writing something that felt new and fresh, of the moment. Brautigan had a lightness of touch, gorgeous timing and a delicious off-handedness that always managed to hit all the right notes, in just the right sequence – colour, pitch, you name it. Breathtaking stuff.

Time has not been kind to the writings of Richard Brautigan. By the early 1970s the critics were already having a go at him, and with a certain appetite. They were, on the whole, quite right: he wasn’t really very good after all. The work is not without charm or felicities of style, but it is pretty thin stuff: precious, self-indulgent fluff. It is also true, however, that had Brautigan been an Easterner, an Ivy League graduate, a habitué of upper Manhattan literary soirées, he might well have been allowed a gentler landing. But he was not any of those things: he was a Westerner, white trash, didn’t go to college, and worst of all, was a California phenom, a national success, the literary darling of the young. The long knives were well due in making an appearance.

Brautigan came from the Pacific Northwest, born in Tacoma, Washington in the winter of 1935. His childhood seems to have been appalling and he was reluctant to discuss it. He never knew his father, who, in turn, never knew of his son until reading his death notice. His mother was no bargain either, at one point abandoning Brautigan and his younger sister, then aged nine and four respectively, in a hotel room in Great Falls, Montana. Brautigan grew up poor in Eugene and the small towns of Oregon. In 1955 he threw a rock through a police station window, was arrested, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, and committed to Oregon State Hospital for three months. There are differing stories as to why he tossed that rock. One has it that Brautigan showed a piece of his writing to a girl he had a crush on and she didn’t think much of it, so he got upset. He told his daughter, many years later, that he was simply hungry and figured that in jail he would at least get three square meals. In any event, he miscalculated. He was given electroconvulsive therapy, and his sister, with whom Brautigan did seem to have a tolerable relationship, is quoted as saying that her brother was very quiet when he returned home and never really opened up to her again. Brautigan left for California several days later and he never came back. ‘I guess he hated us,’ his mother said. ‘I haven’t the slightest idea why.’

The San Francisco Brautigan settled into in 1955 would have been, as it continues to be, a very lovely, provincial port city, with a long history of hospitality towards unconventional outsiders, not least artists and writers. It would, of course, have been a sleepier place then and with manageable rents. San Francisco likes to think of itself as a far-flung version of 15th-century Florence, a cultural oasis in a savage wilderness, but, in truth, it has never been a significant centre for the arts in America, not in 1955, not now. Perhaps this is because it is such a forgiving place, or was once, and such a remarkably pleasant place to be. Some of the presiding literary spirits when Brautigan arrived in town would have been Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer (to whom Trout Fishing In America is dedicated). Writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Snyder, Creeley would also have been moving through at this point, but the so-called Beat Scene was not fully fledged, and its principals not yet aware that they were Beatniks, merely a few young writers on the move, figuring it out as they went along. There would have been a handful of interesting painters floating around and the jazz in the local clubs would have been thoroughly wonderful and cheap to go hear.

A mutual friend describes Brautigan, circa 1970, as a ‘funny, terrified man’. His reticence kept him from being among the regulars who would get up and read their work at the North Beach coffee bars. His off-beat, gentle humour did not, in any case, endear him to audiences, whose tastes were for the more apocalyptic and expansive. The other Beat writers appear to have found him rather ‘queer’. He was certainly never taken up either by them or the national press as part of the inner Beat circle.

Brautigan began as a poet. ‘I wrote poetry for seven years,’ he said,

to learn how to write a sentence because I really wanted to write novels and I figured that I couldn’t write a novel until I learned how to write a sentence … One day when I was 25 years old, I looked down and realised that I could write a sentence … wrote my first novel Trout and followed it with three other novels.

Brautigan began publishing his poetry in assorted magazines as early as 1956. His first small collection of poems, Lay the Marble Tea, was published in 1959. (Marmoreal imagery will occur throughout his poetry and fiction, curiously embedded in similes.) By the mid-1960s, while involved with the Diggers and hippies in the Haight, he could often be found giving copies of his poems away on the streets – probably to pretty young women, if we are to judge by the subject matter of the poems and stories. Brautigan published two full collections of poetry in his life: the first, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, appeared in 1968, the same year as his third novel, In Watermelon Sugar. That same year Please Plant This Book also came out: eight seed packets, each containing seeds and with poems printed on the sides. A second collection, Rommel Drives On Deep into Egypt, was published in 1970, the year he was divorced from Virginia Adler, whom he’d married ten years earlier in Reno.

The poetry is just flat awful, no two ways about it, and now embarrassing to read, not least, I suppose, because I was so infatuated with it thirty years ago. Like his fiction, the poems are minimalist, sometimes only a line in length. They rely almost entirely on Brautigan’s light touch, gentle irony and, his favourite trope, the mildly surreal, occasionally startling metaphor or simile. He was too fond of this device, and it sinks the poetry a good deal faster than the prose, which customarily has a bit of narrative shape and movement to keep it put-putting along, if barely. The poetry is hopelessly sentimental, sophomoric; what once seemed dashingly off-hand and hip now cloys.

Trout Fishing in America was written in the summer of 1961 in Idaho’s Stanley Basin, wild country. Brautigan spent that summer camping with his wife and one-year-old daughter Ianthe, and the book was written on a portable typewriter alongside a trout stream. It is arguably Brautigan’s best book, and although largely rough-going forty years later, the writing remains highly original and inventive. Brautigan liked fishing and knew a great deal about it. Many of his stories – his best ones – are about going fishing as a boy, just heading off into the woods and rain with his rod and reel.

Brautigan’s prose writings are occasionally grouped with those of certain of his contemporaries – Barth, Coover, Vonnegut, Barthelme – under the rubric New Fiction. There is in Brautigan, as with the others, what Borges called ‘that measure of irrealism indispensable to art’; as with the others, too, a foregrounding of form and language, blurred distinctions between the real and imaginary, time now and time then. John Barth has written about Barthelme’s ‘nonlinear narration, sportive form and cohabitation of radical fantasy with quotidian detail’. Along with those traits, Brautigan shares with Barthelme his extreme minimalism, the deft placement, or misplacement, of emphasis, the shaggy dog endings. But the similarities end there. The colour, texture and tone of their work is completely different, as is the subject matter and its treatment. Brautigan is the looser writer, more radical in form and further out in his imaginative flights, but he is also less capable of achieving a successfully sustained narrative, no matter how brief. Brautigan is continually bailing out in his stories before they arrive anywhere. Or he is trying to charm his way out. It shows up badly now.

Trout Fishing in America took six years to be published, initially by a small San Francisco house, Four Seasons Foundation. Over those six years it had been rejected many times by various publishers. A Confederate General from Big Sur, a novel written later but published earlier (in 1964 by Grove Press in New York), bombed. Brautigan lived very modestly with his wife and daughter until the huge success of Trout Fishing. For someone as gentle, bewildered, alcoholic and vulnerable as him, it must have been powerfully upsetting to be taken up so fast, then dropped so hard.

In addition to his eight novels, Brautigan wrote An Unfortunate Woman, a collection of diary entries from 1982 that revolve around the death of a close woman friend. It was unkind of the publishers to release the book. Brautigan is now exhausted and in despair. Two years later he will be found dead with a whiskey bottle by his side and a bullet in his head. The writing is artless, even as a set of notebook entries. Only some of the tired old mannerisms identify the author, but these, too, have grown faint.

Revenge of the Lawn is a collection of short fiction written between 1962 and 1970, 62 pieces over 160 pages. The longest of them run to five pages. Several are only half a page or less. A few are mildly charming. Brautigan is puppyish and sometimes endearing when he effuses over a new girlfriend: he was a famous enthusiast. More than a few of the stories have memorable or beautifully handled moments of observation. It’s a pity he was such a lazy writer. The best story in the collection is atypical. It’s called ‘A Short History of Oregon’, and is about coming upon a house in the middle of the Oregon woods:

As I got closer to the house, the front door slammed open and a kid ran out onto a crude makeshift porch. He didn’t have any shoes or a coat on. He was about nine years old and his blond hair was dishevelled as if the wind were blowing all the time in his hair.

He looked older than nine and was immediately joined by three sisters who were three, five and seven. The sisters weren’t wearing any shoes either and they didn’t have any coats on. The sisters looked older than they were.

The quiet spell of the twilight broke suddenly and it started raining again, but the kids didn’t go in the house. They just stood there on the porch, getting all wet and looking at me …

The kids didn’t say a word as I walked by. The sisters’ hair was unruly like dwarf witches’. I didn’t see their folks. There was no light on in the house …

I didn’t say a word in my passing. The kids were soaking wet now. They huddled together in silence on the porch. I had no reason to believe that there was anything more to life than this.

Which is how the story ends. Brautigan doesn’t get more straightforward than this, nor does he elsewhere manage to be emotionally connected to his material in this way. The figures involving the children’s hair are in harness to the rest of the story and don’t jump out or take precedence, as is usually the case. We don’t need to know a great deal about Brautigan’s personal history to twig that this scene cuts close to the bone.

Should we want to know more about Brautigan, the man and father, we could skim through his daughter Ianthe’s memoir of her father and, gulp, her ‘coming to terms with his death’. You Can’t Catch Death isn’t much of a book but is surprisingly touching in its portrait of Brautigan. He appears as a sweet, loving father, however absentee or alcoholic. If she didn’t see a great deal of him over the years, whatever she got seems to have been wonderfully distilled. There is a strong whiff here of writing workshops and California cough-it-all-up therapy. She runs out of material about halfway through and begins writing short chapters in her father’s faux-naive voice that feel like cruel pastiche or parody.

Sometimes, rereading a flawed, or even failed, writer is as interesting as reading the works of ‘successful’ ones, like Philip Roth, say, or Martin Amis, who are strong, sure and able. With Brautigan, one sees the fissures, the slapdash detail, the failures of nerve and, of course, the steep decline just at the point when it should all have been going the other way. Brautigan was damaged goods, psychologically, from the get-go. It was going to end badly – even his daughter could sense that early in her life. But he is an American original, as much in the trajectory of his career and tail-spin as in his writings. It is pleasant to think of the lanky, blond teenager sitting in small Oregon libraries after the war, with the rain pouring down outside, going through the works of Hemingway and Twain, Hammett and Zane Grey, the Brothers Grimm, the poems of John Keats (to make an educated guess). He was also a great fan of Caroline Gordon, all of whose novels he hungrily read, and was perplexed throughout his life that not everyone else had done so. ‘The pure products of America go crazy,’ William Carlos Williams wrote. Sometimes, they are simply overwhelmed.