Revenge of the Brautigan

Penniless in Cornwall, the kindly Kiwi who was lending us a room handed me A Confederate General From Big Sur. It had left him puzzled, but he knew it would delight me. And it did. I revelled in the exploits of Lee Mellon who had a different number of teeth and in different places each time you met him. I was nineteen then and it is many a long year since. Then he seemed modern and alive in the stodgy old world of literature. Now he seems like the only great voice of hippie fiction.

The ’60s were rich in ideals and music, but not so strong in the other arts. I still don’t understand that paradox. The messiah of hippiedom, Ken Kesey, gave us the brilliant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it is brilliant in the old school way. Tom Woolf immortalised Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it is biography. Hunter S. Thompson wrote his name into history with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it is autobiography. Richard Brautigan moved between his own life and fiction seamlessly, and in an all-new Zen elegant prose that pins concepts effortlessly to the page. He has a debt to that famous Assyrian William Saroyan, who had learned to just say what was on his mind, and he borrows from the Surrealists, but Brautigan is a new creation.

The novels are fine, each somehow incomplete but entirely worthwhile — like anything Orson Welles touched. Brautigan endeavoured to write in every genre, including the world’s only Gothic Western (The Hawkline Monster), a manual for anglers (Trout Fishing in America), and — my own favourite — a historical romance called The Abortion. Brautigan also wrote marvellous poetry, forever thought provoking and precisely expressive: Death is a beautiful car parked only/ to be stolen... You hotwire death, get in, and drive away/ like a flag made from a thousand burning funeral parlors/ You have stolen death because you’re bored/ There’s nothing good playing at the movies...

For me, Brautigan’s masterworks are his collections of stories Revenge of the Lawn and The Tokyo Montana Express. It is difficult to sustain such exact prose for a whole novel, especially if you have to tell a story too. Allowed but one book alone on my desert island it would probably be Revenge. I have lived in its pages for almost thirty years now, and the stories stand at my elbow like helpful ghosts. I love the man who replaced his plumbing with poetry (Homage to the San Francisco YMCA), and the other who made a hire-purchase agreement by swapping his shadow for that of a bird, after his wife had said the kindest thing to him since their children were born ‘Get a new television set for the kids. What are you: some kind of human monster?’ (The Wild Birds of Heaven).

In Pacific Radio Fire, Brautigan gives us the plain reality of love lost in all of its pathos and all of its bathos too. His friend’s wife had left him, so they had taken a big bottle of cheap wine to the beach: ‘I didn’t know what he was going to do with the rest of his life either... His eyes were wet wounded rugs. Like some kind of strange vacuum cleaner I tried to console him. I recited the same old litanies that you say to people when you try to help their broken hearts, but words can’t help at all. It’s just the sound of another human voice that makes the only difference. There’s nothing you’re ever going to say that’s going to make anybody happy when they’re feeling shitty about losing someone they love. Finally he set fire to the radio...’ The hit songs then ‘tumbled in popularity like broken birds.’

Brautigan is literature without the pomposity that words tend to apprehend. He was capable of unequalled gentleness and subtlety; the wistful inventor of both Stonehenge stroganoff and werewolf blackberries. Away from the drugged maze of the brilliant but lethal Hunter S. Thompson, Brautigan gives us a truer taste of hippie. He was as great as any who came before him — the Shakespeare of the sixties.

April 2004