To us, sainthood is achieved when a life is lived differently. We’re drawn to the saint and know we’re learning something, but we’re never sure exactly what it is. Our saints inspire. They make us laugh and think at the same time. None of our saints would imagine being collected in a book of saints.
Here’s our first, probably because his name starts with “B.” Others will follow. Each gets the honor of having me do a 2 minute sketch of them on an envelope. W
ho do you think should enter the book of saints?
I’m no hippy, but Richard Brautigan made me want to be. The hippy label others placed upon him might be an accident of time and location, though. Sure he wore the beads and the hair that hippies wore, and traveled in circles of poor idealists; but to put a label on Brautigan is to miss the point. The label would probably peel off in the rain anyway. He was a pure anachronism, born to live in an age and place that exists only in his stories. Pure alien life form–in the best sense of that expression.
His work didn’t necessarily challenge the conventions, as much as it stood apart from them, perhaps unconscious that norms even existed. He peered into a world of small moments and forgotten people and approached them with a sense of wonder. Notes left on the ground intrigue him. He once made a graveyard for insects. A girlfriend’s hair reminds him of a map of a place he would like to travel. Another girlfriend’s departure is compared to the crash of the Hindenburg. When a piece of salad falls to the floor, he contemplates it.
When I read Brautigan, I’m left with a happy feeling–though the pages are often filled with loss. I am inspired to find my innocent eye, push it into my skull, and appreciate every moment of my own existence. Some read adventure novels and dream of traveling to exotic lands and taking part in great moments of history. I read Brautigan and want to sit on a bench and listen to whomever wanders by. I want to pick up a broken clock and wander around with it (a method of meeting people Brautigan once suggested).
A great moment in a Brautigan story or poem might be eating an ice cream cone or taking a piss. Seriously, he has a poem about going pee, looking down at his penis, and feeling romantic knowing where it had been the night before. The poem is aptly titled “The Beautiful Poem.” I’ve never been able to shake that idea from my head, though I have forgotten the Crimean War at least a dozen times.
He mastered the story of the moment, recording simple pleasures and shocks of sadness that he encountered. Who needs plot when you have a vignette that resonates, an image that ticks, a perspective that inspires?
Some of his figures of speech defy translation. Even internally, one must approximate the intention of the metaphor or analogy rather than spend too much time trying to understand it literally. Once, when I was at the Defense Language Institute studying Czech for the safety of the world, I decided to translate some of Brautigan’s poems. One caused heated argument between the Cold War instructor and myself.
The line was “We were the eleven o’clock news” from a three line poem of the same name, that ended with the lines “because while the rest of the world / was going to hell we made love.” Beautiful, right? I presented my translation.
“What do you mean ‘We were the eleven o’clock news,” barked the instructor in a way that may have mimicked the Soviet functionary that had once sentenced him to prison.
“Exactly what I said. It’s a figure of speech.”
“But it doesn’t make sense. You can’t be the news. You mean ‘We were on the eleven o’clock news.”
I argued that I hadn’t meant that at all, that Brautigan hadn’t meant that at all. I’m pretty sure the instructor thought I was just trying to rationalize a poor translation. There was no explaining it to the Czech even though he was himself an author and a lover, as are most Czechs, of word play. This was too playful. Oddly, he liked my translation of Brautigan’s “ . .Dish of ice cream / tasting like an operating table / with the patient staring / up at the ceiling.” That, he could relate to.
Such playfulness and unique sense of what connected together in the world made it easy for many to dismiss the seriousness and merit of Brautigan’s work. It didn’t help that it was impossible for him to write a “straight” novel, though his last, So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away, comes close. The ostensible subjects of his novels were things like lost bowling trophies, imaginary trains, and trout fishing (in which Trout Fishing in America is a character). You can’t get such things on the bestseller list, though I would argue that we’d be much better off if we did.
In my mind, the sort-of plots tried out in the novels and the source of the sort-of conflicts within them aren’t the most important parts of the books. They are used to establish a sense of whimsy that allows the reader to enter a new way of thinking about some pretty terrible stuff. His humor breaks down the reader’s resistance to try out new ideas.
And the ideas stick. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about the library in The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. The protagonist is the sole employee of a library to which writers bring their books, but no one every checks anything out. The authors are allowed to choose their place on the shelves, and they come at all times of day and night to do so. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the state of literature in America.
Another story that sticks in my mind is the ultimate Ugly Cousin portrayal of childhood, “Corporal.” He often writes memoirs of his younger years. It seems as if the innocent child learning a hard lesson isn’t just a trope that shaped his adulthood; it continued to be part of his daily existence. He could never shake the childlike optimism despite all of the evidence against the good in people or fairness of life provided. The shocks of childhood were still experienced as an adult.
“Corporal,” in Revenge of the Lawn, tells the story of a boy who participates in a school paper drive for the war effort. Students are awarded military ranks according to the amount they bring in. He goes door to door, asking for papers and magazines, not having very much luck. There’s an emblematic scene in which he stands in the cold holding a single, warm Life magazine an old lady gives him right after finishing it.
In the end, he realizes that despite his best efforts, he can’t reach a rank higher than corporal. The wealthier kids easily become generals since their parents collect for them or drive them around in cars. They wear their ranks with pride; he hides his two stripes in a drawer. The story ends with a glorious line in which he gives up collecting paper and enters “into the disenchanted paper shadows of America where failure is a bounced check or a bad report card or a letter ending a love affair and the words that hurt people when they read them.”
I think it’s time for a left turn in this saintly write-up.
Brautigan killed himself in a cabin. Who really knows why anyone kills themselves. The main witness to the crime is always absent. Notes left behind are often written by unreliable narrators. It might be easy to say that not fitting in finally got to him. When you are as different and as sensitive as Brautigan was, you travel a very difficult road. The world doesn’t reward what it doesn’t value.
He loved Japan, and Japan loved him. But he wanted America to love him, too. I think he needed it for some reason. Maybe love from another country doesn’t feel “legitimate.” Maybe it seems suspicious like when that kid in high school says he has a girlfriend in the next town over.
For what it’s worth, I like him. So much that he is the first inducted into the Ugly Cousin Book of Saints. The lessons of his gentle spirit and playful attitude toward life live on in his works.
Conversation Starter: I’ve already mentioned it, but it deserves repetition: walk around with a broken clock and see who talks to you. It doesn’t have to be a clock, exactly, but an everyday item one doesn’t normally carry around. Too weird or too normal and no one will talk to you. It has to be broken-clockish. The idea comes from a poem in the book June 30th, June 30th, which I clearly remember buying in the discount bin at Woolworth’s and clearly remember loaning to a guy named Paul. I no longer have the book, but damned if I don’t have the memory of the clock.
Bonus for Bands: Brautigan provides a litany of potential band names via the tables of contents of his poetry and short story books. I had a friend in college that wrote a song called “In Watermelon Sugar,” after the Brautigan story of that name, but he stopped short of using the work as the name of his band itself. I think they would have had minor success had they done so. A quick perusal of Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt alone produces catchy names like “Flora Shakespeare,” “Critical Can Opener,” “Abalone Curry,” “Cannibal Carpenter,” “Negative Clank,” “Jules Verne Zucchini,” “Affectionate Light Bulb,” “Cellular Coyote,” “Lemon Lard,” and my favorite for the more thoughtful musicians, “Love’s Not the Way to Treat a Friend.”
Walk in the Path: I would suggest reading whatever you can find of his and challenge yourself to contemplate the beauty of the mundane, the overlooked, and the not so polite. I’ve listed some readily available suggestions below with little comments and links that will help keep Ugly Cousin afloat. Our sign reads “Will Suggest Books for Food.”
These three books collected in one have been out for a while. The books are thick, but open nicely. My first pick of the three would be this one that collects Revenge of the Lawn, The Abortion (with the cool library guy), and So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away.
Next I would choose this one because it has A Confederate General from Big Sur. I have read this and Kerouac’s Big Sur back to back for a wild and weird juxtaposition of impressions. You also get Dreaming of Babylon and The Hawkline Monster, two pretty good books.
The third collects his most famous work, Trout Fishing in America, which I like more and more as I grow older, but wouldn’t read as my first introduction to Brautigan, a book of poems, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and a collection of short stories, In Watermelon Sugar.
The most interesting biography of sorts is written by his daughter, Ianthe, You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir. Ianthe follows that question in the sort of personal way only a daughter can, with a sense of purpose an outsider could never muster. As his “protector,” she worries that she failed him. As his daughter, she worries she has inherited the death seed that finally grew too large within him.
It is a thought-provoking memoir as much as it is an emotional one. It is entertaining as much as it is informative. She uses her dreams as well as her memories to tell the story. I read it because of Richard Brautigan, but enjoyed it because of Ianthe Brautigan. It is clear she has inherited more than his height. Her prose contains the honest observant magic of her father’s but has a voice all her own.
Go in Peace.