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On Brautigan

by Justin Taylor

The ins and outs of Richard Brautigan, and his novel In Watermelon Sugar

The smartest thing anyone has ever written about Richard Brautigan, probably the smartest thing that ever will be written about him, appeared first in a San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle review, and lately reigns as top blurb on the blurb-page of the Houghton Mifflin omnibus editions of his books:  "There is nothing like Richard Brautigan anywhere. Perhaps, when we are very old, people will write 'Brautigans,' just as we now write novels. This man has invented a genre, a whole new shot, a thing needed, delightful, and right."

Brautigan's novels are short, composed in brief — sometimes single-sentence — chapters whose titles often pull double-duty as retroactive punchlines. His novels each present some handful of at-odds premises and then spend their economical page-counts weaving the disparate narrative and conceptual threads into brightly-colored, but heavily shadowed, tapestries of love and sadness, frivolity and loss. His books are queer, in the head-cocked squinty-eyed sense of that term, anchored by his slightly unhinged deadpan, buoyed by a sedate but entrancing magical realism. His stories split the difference between wide-eyed hippie daydreams and the always just-blinked-back tears of the true melancholic.

Most of Brautigan's narrators are writers, or might as well be (the narrator of The Abortion:  An Historical Romance 1966 is a librarian). Obviously that invites a reading of the narrator as a stand-in for the author, and in Brautigan's case I think such a reading is appropriate. In Sombrero Fallout:  A Japanese Novel (1976), a man identified only as "an American humorist" rips up the opening pages of a story he's working and spends the rest of the book crawling around on the floor of his home, combing his carpet in search of shed hairs belonging to his newly minted ex. Meanwhile, in the wastebasket, the torn-up pages have come to a sort of life and are forwarding the tale that the humorist gave up on — a story about the mysterious appearance of a sombrero in a small town, and the series of increasingly devastating events triggered thereby. The book is both laugh-out-loud funny and bitterly sad — often in the same breath — and somehow even pulls triple duty as an effective parable about the insanity of Cold War arms racing and so-called nuclear deterrence.

Brautigan's influence has been deeply, if not exactly widely, felt. To get a sense of how various his appeal is, and how hard he is to pin down, consider his influence on music. There's a British folk-rock outfit named after his novel Trout Fishing In America, the industrial post-punk band Machines of Loving Grace took their name from one of his poems, and Neko Case's "Margaret vs. Pauline" — off 2006's country-indie crossover Fox Confessor Brings the Flood — was inspired by In Watermelon Sugar, which Case described in an online diary as "a very sad and lonely book with beautiful imagery."

Published in 1968, a year after the surprise breakout success of Trout Fishing in America made Brautigan into an international superstar, In Watermelon Sugar is an astonishing book, a work of understated beauty and grace. It begins with these inviting, confounding, emblematic words:  "In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar." I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant. Though not as popular as Trout Fishing in America, and not as funny as some of his later works (Sombrero Fallout, for example, or Willard and His Bowling Trophies), In Watermelon Sugar is my favorite Brautigan. I believe it's the best book he wrote.

In Watermelon Sugar is set in and around iDEATH, a commune outside of an unnamed town. The narrator is also not named. "I guess you are kind of curious as to who I am," he writes in a chapter called "My Name," "but I am one of those who do not have a regular name. My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind."

The novel is essentially a pastoral. iDEATH has a trout hatchery, glass tombs where the dead are decked in foxfire before interment so that they shine forever, a bridge that goes nowhere, enormous statues of vegetables, couches on the edge of the river, shacks where people can go to spend time alone. ("We who do not have regular names spend a lot of time by ourselves," writes the narrator. "It suits us.") At the Watermelon Works "[w]e take the juice from the watermelons and cook it down until there's nothing left but sugar, and then we work it into the shape of this thing that we have:  our lives." Different color watermelons are used to make the different watermelon sugars, which are the base material for every object, tool, or other commodity the iDEATHers need. Color of watermelon is determined by the sun, which shines a different color everyday.

An ongoing source of concern for the denizens of iDEATH is the Forgotten Works, an unfathomable wasteland-cum-junkyard. Over its gates, the words YOU MIGHT GET LOST. Things once but no longer of use to the world simply wind up there. Great stacks and hills of them go on forever. Trails weave endlessly through the piles of "forgotten things," though some people, such as the narrator's friend Margaret, are attracted to them. Though he doesn't like the Forgotten Works, he sometimes accompanies her on her trips there. He especially dislikes her camaraderie with inBOIL, an angry drunkard in rebellion against all of iDEATH. inBOIL, the brother of iDEATH's leader, Charley, lives with a group of fellow dissidents in shacks at the edge of the Forgotten Works, where they forage for forgotten things that they use to make whiskey. When the narrator falls for Pauline, an extraordinary cook and all-around sweetheart (in the words of Neko Case's song:  "everything's so easy for Pauline"), Margaret begins to spend more time with inBOIL's bad gang. Charley and inBOIL's fraternity, and the love triangle that strains the communal atmosphere at iDEATH, infuse the gathering tension and inevitable showdown with the gothic overtones of a family romance.

Brautigan's success held steady until the mid-'70s; then the world moved on. He continued to write and publish, but was largely ignored. His star fallen, he became depressed. He drank too much. He killed himself — Hemingway-style — in 1984 at the age of 49. All told, he wrote about 20 books of poetry and fiction. Most or all of the fiction is still in print; almost none of the poetry is.

As with all writers who become genres unto themselves, even Brautigan's lesser works are treasures, simply because they are one of a finite number of relics of a mind admired as much for its idiosyncrasy as its skill. (I think immediately of H.P. Lovecraft, Gertrude Stein, and W.G. Sebald.) And as with a true love, his weaknesses appeal as much as his strengths. Each Brautigan is a unique little world. Getting lost, then, is not the risk but the reward.

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Articles in this Issue

The Chore Coat, by Adrienne Mercer
Beauty That Shines Through, by Krista Landers
On Brautigan, by Justin Taylor
Deaf not Deaf, by Josh Swiller
My Guitar Flies Solo to Bucharest, by Glenn Kurtz
Communications, by Phillip Routh
International Law, by Marguerite Feitlowitz
Automotive Technology, by Jeff Steinbrink
Lost Last Month


Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader (Thunder's Mouth, May 2007), an anthology of new and selected short fiction about the end of the world. His own writing — fiction, poetry, and criticism — is archived at www.justindtaylor.net

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