The Brautigan phenomenon, California filtered through Brautigan, has been working itself out, in prose and verse, for several years now. How far has it got, and where is it going? Like the hitchhikers who stand beside Route 1 thumbing rides simultaneously in both directions, it is a distinctive phenomenon which is hard to assess. Still, Brautigan has now moved publishers—whether up, down, or sideways—from City Lights Press to Simon and Schuster, and the occasion is obviously ripe for inquiry.
We begin by distinguishing: on the one hand there is Brautigan’s poetry, on the other Brautigan’s prose. About the poetry, I can’t pretend to offer a very assured judgment. There is a great deal of it, and I haven’t seen it all. What I have seen is in a minor key: it comes on rather like the more playful poems of e. e. cummings. There are lots of lively small poems on small, occasional topics; considerable charm, a nicely understated wit—it is deft writing, and that, for a poet, is not much of a compliment.
One of the best things about this poetry is that it doesn’t try very hard. Its metaphors drop neatly into place without any agony of thought or torment of feeling. The largest statements I have seen the poet undertake verge on sentimentality (“The Galilee Hitch-Hiker”) or nostalgia (“1942”); a good deal of what he turns out is what used to be called jeux d’esprit, vers de circonstance, or some other French name implying more sauce than substance.
A nice, medium-sized Brautigan poem, by which the general tenor of his verse can be gauged, is “The Return of the Rivers”:
All the rivers run into the sea;
yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.
It is raining today
in the mountains.
It is a warm green rain
in its pockets
for spring is here,
and does not dream
Birds happen music
like clocks ticking heavens
in a land
where children love spiders,
and let them sleep
in their hair.
A slow rain sizzles
on the river
like a pan
full of frying flowers,
and with each drop
It is elegantly balanced verse, on a theme that the author himself announces as commonplace, but that he redeems into (at most) charm by a set of carefully graduated metaphors, from the cheap use of “love” early on to the pointedly anti-poetical “pan full of frying flowers” at the end, dropped in to make sure we don’t take the dreamy tone too seriously.
The prose pieces (one can’t call them novels or even fictions—they may well go down in literary history as Brautigans) now number four, and to this reader’s taste, they are much more impressive than the poetry. But they are not easy to describe. They are always set in California, they are always first-person narratives, the narrator is someone who looks and sounds—well, like Brautigan, one has to suppose. And that means: naïve, open, funny, self-derisive, wry, lyric, strange…one could add adjectives like “funky” and “hip” and “weird,” but since these all have to be accompanied by the expression “y’know what I mean?” and a gesture they are hardly worth using.
Brautigans involve people just living around in a landscape that is vaguely compounded of shacks, scenery, and catch phrases; they have slightly improbable ways of getting by, but as they don’t need much and aren’t wildly ambitious, their needs are easily met by the usual raunchy, hand-to-mouth means. They do seem to understand one another pretty well, and thus come to live in a kind of Brautigan subculture into which recognizable America—fearful, suspicious, apologetic, hair-trigger violent—obtrudes only occasionally. One mark of their separateness that a reader is first bothered by and then, after a while, becomes rather attached to, is the use of an occasional phrase in what Gogol would call its “hemorrhoidal” sense—all-purpose, asyntactical, repetitious, skewball. The people of In Watermelon Sugar live near a watermelon sugar factory, one of whose byproducts is a flammable something called watermelontrout oil. There’s some sort of institution in the town, perhaps a boarding house, called iDEATH, and a gang of baddies led by a character named inBOIL.
Described in these terms, the Brautigan probably sounds like a collection of rather silly and pointless verbal jokes; and it’s doubtless possible to get so worked up over these conscious absurdities that one forgets to see anything else. But In Watermelon Sugar (1968) is a good place to jump off on one’s Brautigan readings, precisely because it’s so apparent that there is a great deal more to it. It seems to me a fable, but also a nightmare, of innocence. Our nameless narrator is a sweet, simple, well-meaning person; practically the first thing he tells us is that he has a gentle life. Sometimes he is a writer, sometimes he is a sculptor: there seems to be a great deal of odd sculpture in the quiet rural community of watermelon sugar.
But he is troubled by all sorts of violence, some actual, some recollected. There used to be tigers in watermelon sugar, rather talkative and explanatory tigers, who (it turns out) devoured the narrator’s parents one day. Still very present are inBOIL and his gang, who live down by the Forgotten Works, making their own rotten whisky in the woods, and despising the nice, good people at iDEATH. And worse than all these for our narrator, though less dramatic, is the basic problem of the book, Margaret and Pauline. The problem is simply that it used to be Margaret who slept with the narrator, and now it is Pauline.
Margaret does not take this change at all well, to our narrator’s great distress. She takes to hanging around inBOIL and his gang of nasties; then, when, out of bravado, they cut themselves to pieces with jackknives, Margaret goes off and hangs herself from an apple tree. Though the iDEATH people are generally relieved at the solution of the inBOIL problem, they are distressed at the suicide of Margaret. Fred, the narrator’s friend, is very sorry; Margaret’s brother feels real bad; Pauline regrets it deeply; the narrator sincerely wishes she hadn’t done it. They do not know why she did it; but there is not much to be said, now that it is done. They bury her, after the traditional watermelon sugar fashion, in a lighted glass coffin set in the river bed, and the book ends with preparations for the traditional funeral dance, a waltz in the trout hatchery.
Like Agnes Varda’s lovely movie Le Bonheur, which it resembles in many ways, this fable of Brautigan’s seems to me deeply ambiguous; you can read it forward (with Pauline and the iDEATH people as the civilized element) or backward (with inBOIL and pals as the outcast-pariah heroes) or neutrally, with a shrug of the shoulders for poor Margaret. Our narrator, with his aspirations toward a “gentle life,” can’t conceivably come off very well, and the simple fact that nobody in the book blames him for Margaret’s death may be read as an invitation to the reader to do so. The end of inBOIL and cronies comes about when they invade iDEATH, bragging that they understand the principles of the place better than those who live there, and prove the point by slashing themselves (thumbs, noses, ears, eyes) gorily to pieces. So they are evidently more victims than heroes (if that’s our choice), and the iDEATH ideal, to which the narrator and Pauline are snugly accommodating themselves at the end of the book, looks more dubious than ever.
Yet to dissect it in this way, into allegory, is also to wrong it; for all its quirkiness and funkiness (y’know what I mean?), In Watermelon Sugar is a beautiful American book, a kind of Our Town in depth, with the ancient American problem (can we conceivably be as sincere and innocent as we pretend without also being filthy liars and hideously cruel?) at the heart of it.
Trout Fishing in America is the earlier (1967) and, in this reader’s judgment, the next best Brautigan; but one must note respectfully that it seems to have had a better press than In Watermelon Sugar. Probably this is because it feels like a bigger book. I found it more diffuse and episodic, a little more forced in some of its fun, a little more disposed to rely on obscenity for easy effects. Without any of the structure of In Watermelon Sugar, it is wilder and more fantastic in its use of language, more eloquent and various in its accounts of some very quirky people—a kind of visionary comic-book apocalypse about fresh-water Americans and their nature. If it gets less than top marks with this accountant, that’s probably due to a basic preference for more controlled books which I couldn’t begin to justify logically. Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar, whichever one happens to prefer, are a pair of vigorous and original books, and the crown of Brautigan’s achievement so far.
By contrast, I couldn’t get very excited over A Confederate General from Big Sur, the first of the lot (1964). The problem here is simply that, being unsure of itself, it tries too hard. In essence the book amounts to an extended version of those stories that begin, “I met this guy in North Beach last summer, you’ll never believe it, was he wacky, just let me tell you.” Self-consciousness is the curse of the Brautigan characters; when they start assuring us how quaint they are and performing quaint capers to prove the point, the cause is as plainly lost as it was when Longstreet called on Pickett to charge.
So it’s clear, when one looks back over the line of Brautigans from last published to first, that the author has been growing in assurance, in control, in ambition. But the books are still very different from one another, especially in organization; and it wouldn’t have been at all easy to predict, from the three previous ones, what the fourth book, just published, would be like. As a matter of fact, there is some reason to feel that, despite publication dates, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, may have been planned if not written before Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar. It is a good deal less grotesque and fantastic than its forerunners, a good deal less ambitious as well. It doesn’t play as many tricks with the prose or with the surface of things; it is a milder, blander book than either of its immediate predecessors.
The narrator of The Abortion, once again nameless, is a nice earnest simple young man who works in a library. But it is an odd library, since it only takes in books that people have written and never gives them out, yet requires the librarian to be available twenty-four hours a day. Irresistibly, inconceivably alluring Vida Kramar brings in a book she has written in order to explain how uncomfortable she feels in her much-too-provocative body. Being smashingly attractive is a hard problem for her. Still, just by being nice, the librarian manages to make her feel better about it; and, to make a simple story short, it’s her abortion that provides the central episode of the plot. With the help of Foster, a diamond in the rough, they take a plane to San Diego, a bus to Tijuana, and then…but there’s no point to reciting the whole story in a review.
What makes the situation go is its radical instability. Our hero is presented as such a helpless innocent, Vida is so frantically desirable to all passing males, and the situation is so plainly fraught with the possibilities of hideous misfortune that one is spooked on every page by phantoms of multiple catastrophe. But, like all other Brautigan innocents, this pair seems to enjoy a special immunity. Evil quietly evaporates around them, and none of the hideous destinies to which Candide heroes are traditionally prone actually befalls them. The librarian does indeed get a nasty jolt on his return to San Francisco, but Vida and Foster are confident the change will be good for him, and, like parents with a scared, backward child, they maneuver him into a new role that leaves him quite happy.
It is a solution open to the same kind of sardonic ambiguity that marked In Watermelon Sugar. Happy adjustment is fine, just fine; but it’s a little creepy too, and maybe life with Vida and Foster as quasi-parents has a certain relation to the Muerte that was built into the Tijuana expedition as its central purpose. At any rate, by the end of the book, our hero has built himself a certain status as practically everyone’s favorite puppy-dog; and unless Mr. Brautigan is a much clumsier artist than I think him to be, he wants that fact to trouble the reader at least some.
The surfaces of the new book are a good deal less skewed than those of the previous two; it has none of those fey watermelons, trouts, and verbal knots in the grain of the narrative. What is queer about the world of The Abortion is mostly the librarian’s exaggerated, artless simplicity of mind; it makes for a series of small jokes, which can be represented best by isolated quotes:
We drove down Divisadero and saw a man washing the windows of a funeral parlor with a garden hose. He was spraying the hose against the second-floor windows. It was not a normal thing to see, so early in the morning.
[At the airport restaurant] There were Negro men in white uniforms doing the cooking while wearing tall white hats, but there were no Negroes in the restaurant eating. I guess Negroes don’t take airplanes early in the morning.
[On the bus to Tijuana] San Diego grew very poor and then we were on a freeway. The country down that way is pretty nothing and not worth describing…. Vida looked out the window at what is not worth describing, but even more so and done in cold cement freeway language. She didn’t say anything.
There is a touch of the cunning and tricksy about these jokes; one feels a deliberate element in their simplicity, so that the narrator seems already to have settled into his destined role as campus character. The worst things that can happen to him aren’t very bad, and the best aren’t very good. He’s evidently a victim of that creeping California disease which amounts to saying, to yourself or to others, “What the hell, I’m pretty much okay the way I am, right?” There are a lot of places in the world where it depends; there is a real chance you may be—oh well, like stupid or maybe infantile, and sometimes it even matters, to the point of doing something about it. Not here. It would be too much to ask of Mr. Brautigan that he commit himself to a point of view on his characters: it really would, that’s not just sarcasm.
He leaves us the possibility of irony; nailing it down explicitly would narrow, not widen, his effect. His art lies in making things out of a scene, and the things he chooses to make aren’t moral judgments, they’re not even compatible with moral judgments. But the things he makes can and must involve large or trifling attitudes, maybe not toward people (I think Brautigan is too modern to care a damn about people), but toward the language and vision that are his special gift.
The Abortion, I feel, doesn’t make generous use of the qualities manifested in the previous two novels. It isn’t a bad book, it just isn’t much of a book. That isn’t a very startling judgment, of course; small achievements are what make up publishers’ long lists. But Brautigan has done too much in the genuinely imaginative, powerfully controlled way of vision to be accepted readily as an artificer of the country cute.
April 22, 1971