My final read for the #1976Club is not the book I intended, but then I often find my reading life goes like that! I had planned to revisit the wonderful Margaret Atwood, with her novel “Lady Oracle”, a title I haven’t read for decades and can recall nothing about really! However, when it came to it, my mood wasn’t right and I couldn’t engage. Then I discovered that I had got my dates wrong regarding Richard Brautigan and his 1976 title was in fact one of my favourites, “Sombrero Fallout”… So I made a last minute switch, and I’m so glad I did because this was the perfect book for me to round off the week! 😀

The opening sentences of the book have always hooked me straight away:

“A sombrero fell out of the sky and landed on the Main Street of town in front of the Mayor, his cousin and a person out of work. The day was scrubbed clean by the desert air. The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen. There was no reason for a sombrero to fall out of the sky. No airplane or helicopter was passing overhead and it was not a religious holiday.”

That paragraph is the start of a story being written by an American humourist. However, the man is in the middle of an emotional trauma as his Japanese girlfriend has left him after two years together. Falling apart and unable to cope, he tears up his work and throws it into the waste paper basket. He will go on to try to make it through the night alone and abandoned; and in a parallel storyline Yukiko, his ex-lover, will sleep and dream, calm and happy with only her cat for company. However, the story of the sombrero refuses to be abandoned, and while the writer and Yukiko are getting on with their lives, the tale of the town with the sombrero continues to develop in the waste bin. What seems a simple but inexplicable event – a sombrero which falls from the sky – causes all kinds of issues; the the three men standing around when it lands fall out over the hat; the local people become enraged by the situation; the police are sent to break up the gathering around the sombrero but don’t make it there… As the situation deteriorates, the Army is sent in to deal with the rioting townspeople, and Normal Mailer arrives to report on the conflict (“It was Hell” he says!) Unaware of all this, the writer mourns his lost love, and Yukiko sleeps on…

This man was so complicated that he could make a labyrinth look like a straight line. In the beginning she found it attractive because she was very intelligent. By the time it began to bother her, it was too late: She was in love with him and as things got worse she fell deeper and deeper in love with him.
She wasn’t a masochist either.
It just went that way.

Re-reading this book was always likely to be a treat, and I’m happy that I wasn’t disappointed on my revisit. Brautigan’s books often have a fable-like quality, and certainly the events of the waste basket are a little unusual. Why *should* a sombrero trigger such a major conflict? Why does its temperature changes cause the local people to turn to extreme behaviour? And will any of this ever be resolved? Meanwhile, it’s hard not to see the American humourist as a mocking self-portrait of Brautigan himself. The unnamed writer is a bit of a loser; impractical, awkward in company, he has the advantage of being good in bed which is one reason Yukiko stays with him as long as she does. Watching him flail around his apartment during the night, trying to decide if he should eat something, and then having another emotional collapse when he discovers a hair of Yukiko’s on the floor, you feel a mixture of sympathy and irritation, wanting him to put himself together. Frankly, it’s clear that he’s lucky the woman put up with him for so long.

He never lacked things to worry about. They followed him around like millions of trained white mice and he was their master. If he taught all his worries to sing, they would have made the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound like a potato.

The mixture of humour in the sombrero strand and pathos in the author strand makes for a perhaps unusual, but very effective, read. There are some real laughs in the waste basket, and that particular element is wonderful fun. I have to say, though, that my response to the author strand was tempered on this reading by what I now know about Richard Brautigan. I think he’s a bit of a genius, a real one-off, but he did have a troubled personal life. An alcoholic through his adult life, he went through a number of marriages and relationships, ironically marrying a Japanese woman, Akiko Yoshimura, at the end of 1977. They were together for a couple of years, apparently divorcing in 1980. It’s almost as if, knowing himself, he wrote into the book what he expected to happen. Brautigan killed himself in 1984. So reading the story now through the lens of Brautigan’s life gives it an added poignancy.

My Brautigan Picador editions

The sadness aside, re-visiting “Sombrero Fallout” was so entertaining, and a wonderful way for me to round off the #1976Club. I’ve written about Richard Brautigan before on the Ramblings, and he’s a long-term favourite, but I don’t think I’ve picked up this particular title for a couple of decades, when I last had a chronological re-read of his works. This is a quirky, funny, sad, clever and unforgettable little book and given the time I could happy sit down and read his books from the first to the last. If you’ve never read him, I really do recommend you give him a go!