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Richard Brautigan

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Someone here in London has been selling off all her old Richard Brautigan paperbacks, and they’ve been migrating from the “new arrivals” shelf at The Book Addict to a spot on my own shelf, which happens to be between Joseph Boyden and Roch Carrier.

(Yes, I do alphabetize my bookshelves, each genre separately, if you must know.)

And I’ve been reading them, which generally speaking has been a mistake.

I l0ved Trout Fishing in America; having written countless magazine articles on how to catch trout, in America and elsewhere, I consider this the finest tract on trout fishing ever published. That is, you’ll learn diddly squat about trout fishing by reading it, but all those magazine articles won’t do you much better. And they’re less fun.

Consequently, I wanted to track down the rest of Brautigan’s oeuvre. (Oeuvre: n. a kind of omelette, impossible to make without breaking eggs.) And I’ve been disappointed.

I read In Watermelon Sugar, for example, in Vancouver. More linear than the trout book; uses a repeated phrase (the title) as the trout book uses “trout fishing in America,” to mean just about anything; has trout in it. But never actually succeeds in being interesting, or surprising, in the way Trout Fishing in America does. In Watermelon Sugar is simply odd, in a way that seems forced.

The Abortion: A Historical Romance 1966 is only a little better; it is, at least, more amusing. The Revenge of the Lawn is hit and miss.

It’s frustrating. It’s also immediately clear why Brautigan has been written off as an artifact of the Haight-Ashbury. Addicted to the adulation of a largely uncritical readership, he just kept pushing out books, good, bad, or indifferent. He kept on breaking those eggs, in other words, but didn’t pay much attention to how he cooked them.

I think his best, after the trout book, is his posthumous novel An Unfortunate Woman, which was picked up by a French publisher after no one in the United States showed any interest, and then published in the US after his suicide. No American publisher showed interest in this novel because he was seen as an artifact of the 1960s counterculture, still working his same old self-indulgent schtick. And that’s what it appears to be — until you get to the end, when it becomes something quite different, when he excoriates his own self-indulgence and laments the time he’s wasted without saying anything of import.

It seems rather autobiographical.

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