beatsofsummer-button

To tie in with Roof Beam Reader’s “Beats of Summer” reading event, I though I would share a few thoughts about one of my favourite writers, Richard Brautigan.

Although Brautigan is usually bracketed with the beat writers, he doesn’t to my mind have a lot in common with them. Born in 1935, he was quite a few years younger than Kerouac and co, and it wasn’t till the 1960s that he really came to the fore – therefore, I’ve always bracketed him more with hippie culture than the beats, though some would argue that one led on from the other.

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I first stumbled across Brautigan’s work when I was living in Cheltenham in the late 1970s. There was a wonderful bookshop called, if I remember correctly, Paperback Parade. As you might guess, it sold only paperbacks; it was part of a chain, I think, because I came across at least one other branch, and the books were very charmingly presented on sloping shelves by publisher. I was fond of Picador books at the time, and so Brautigan’s works caught my eye when browsing. The first novel of his I read was “The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966” and I was drawn to it for a couple of reasons: firstly, I was going through a bit of a hippie phase myself so was attracted by the 1966 in the title; and secondly the picture of Brautigan on the cover reminded me of someone I had a huge crush on at the time! So I picked up the book and instantly fell in love with Brautigan’s unique, almost childlike style, and so promptly invested in as many of his works as Paperback Parade could provide – which was most of his novels (this is how they are listed on Wikipedia):

A Confederate General From Big Sur (1964)
Trout Fishing in America (1967)
In Watermelon Sugar (1968)
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971)
Revenge of the Lawn – short stories (October 1, 1971,
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974)
Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (1975)
Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976)
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (1977)
The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980)
So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (1982)
An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey (1982)

Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington and seems to have had a kind of rackety early life – his parents separated before he was born and his mother went through further marriages producing half-siblings for Richard. The family was extremely poor and after moving around for several years finally settled in Eugene, Oregon where Brautigan finished school. However, his behaviour became erratic, he was sent to an institution and received ECT. In 1956 he was released and after staying with his family for a short while he moved to San Francisco where he would spend much of his life.

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Brautigan had been writing since he was 12 – mainly poetry but also longer works. He tried to establish himself as a writer once he reached San Francisco, and took part in poetry readings and the like. The city was, of course, a vibrant centre for modern writing and he managed to get some poems published. In the 1960s he became involved in the Californian counterculture and his first novel was published in 1964, though wasn’t much of a success. However, “Trout Fishing In American” made his name and caused him to be bracketed with the hippie movement. He continued to write novels, experimenting with different genres, and also more poems and short stories. However, his work fell out of favour in the 1970s and early 1980s; and as he suffered from depression and alcoholism he ended up alienating many of his friends and loved ones. Tragically in 1984 he shot himself whilst living alone in Bolinas, California, by this time so isolated that it may have been several weeks before his body was discovered.

That’s just a sketch – there are biographies and websites out there if you want to read up on RB. As for his work, when I discovered him in the 1970s I devoured everything that was available at the time – which looking at the list above must have been up to Willard and his Bowling Trophies. I remember being desperately excited waiting for the next Brautigan book to come out – so many of the writers I loved at the time were no longer with us, so there was extra joy when Sombrero Fallout came out in Picador in 1980. It turned out to be one of my favourite Brautigans – a mixture of humour, fantasy and sadness, telling the story of a sombrero that falls out of the sky and causes a war to take place inside it, alongside a lost love and the hair of a Japanese woman. It sounds weird I know, but it had me laughing and crying at the same time. The next new Brautigan was The Tokyo Montana Express, a book made up of short sequences featuring the two places Brautigan seemed to love most at the time. Then came “So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away”, which an American friend got for me in hardback when it came out – a slightly different kind of work, a fictionalised memory of a childhood time which hinted at Brautigan’s past; a past that at that time was not so well known.

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Then nothing – Brautigan slipped off my radar until I heard the news of his death, which really shook me. I’d been reading his books intently for 6 or 7 years, carrying them around with me as I moved homes, and the death was unexpected because RB was something of a shadowy figure – in those pre-Internet days it was often hard to find out about obscure writers!

Last summer – or was it the summer before? – I re-read all Brautigan’s works in sequence. I did wonder what I would make of them after all these years, but I was bowled over a second time round. Brautigan’s fantasy-filled, surreal, magical early works still held me in their spell. His later, sadder, stranger works still hypnotised and made me laugh and cry. And there were bonuses to be found online – an unpublished novel “An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey” which had only come out fairly recently; a collection of early lost works; and a beautiful, touching memoir by his daughter, Ianthe Brautigan. I had forgotten just how individual RB’s work was, covering all sorts of genres from early ecology, gothic cowboy horror, hardboiled detectives, a library that accepts manuscripts not books. And he always seemed to feature in the cover photo with the girlfriend of the time, which was pretty kooky!

To my mind, Brautigan is a one-off – they definitely broke the mould when they made him, and I guess he is very much going to be an acquired taste. I think you will either love him or hate him! I love him and would highly recommend his writings to anyone looking for anything quirky, moving, funny and thought-provoking. I loved my re-reads of Richard Brautigan, and my old, slightly battered Picadors will still continue to travel with me wherever I go.

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For anyone who wants to explore Brautigan further, I would recommend this wonderful website devoted to his work – it’s a mine of information about his work, legacy, his recordings of poetry etc – do pay a visit!