“The candles will blow themselves out”: The Richard Brautigan Saga

August 30, 2012

    BEFORE I SAY ANYTHING about William (“Gatz”) Hjortsberg’s massive biography of writer Richard Brautigan, Jubilee Hitchhiker, I should probably first check with readers to make sure they’ve even heard of the book’s subject.

    If Brautigan’s name resonates with only a faint echo today, that wasn’t always the case. At one point, in the early 1970s, along with the likes of Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Brautigan was among the best-known and best-selling “cutting-edge” American writers in the world. His first and most popular book, Trout Fishing in America, a quirky prose work billed as a novel, was written in 1961 and, though not published until 1967, eventually sold about 4 million copies in various editions and translations.

    Brautigan himself, decked out in cowboy hat, long blond hair, floppy moustache, love beads, jeans, vest, boots, and inevitably accompanied in book-jacket cover photos by a girlfriend of the moment, seemed more attuned to the 1960s version of the Age of Aquarius than just about any other author in the country. Like his older contemporaries Vonnegut and poet Allen Ginsberg, Brautigan became something of a campus lecture-circuit hero, and his shaggy-dog vignettes could be found regularly in the pages of the era’s generational bible, Rolling Stone magazine.

    Along with fame, however fleeting, there were sizeable advances for subsequent books (mainly thanks to legendary Delacorte publisher, Sam Lawrence); peripatetic travel and sex (most often involving Japan, and Asian women); and the acquisition of properties at the artists’ colony in Bolinas, California, just north of San Francisco, and in Montana, near the town of Livingston. That’s where Brautigan became part of a loose group of writers, actors, and others known as “the Montana Gang.” Authors in this hard-drinking, gun-shooting, hunting-and-fishing, literary and movie-making crowd included Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, and biographer Hjortsberg himself. Film actors Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Rip Torn, and Harry Dean Stanton were among their drinking buddies.

    Not bad for an oddball kid, raised in a Depression-era, single-parent, working-class family, living on the fringes of “white trash” culture in Tacoma, Washington and Eugene, Oregon during the tail-end of the 1930s and the subsequent Second World War. The adolescent Richard, who only learned the name of his permanently absent father when he was 17 (and even then, paternity remained a matter of dispute), and was early on alienated from his waitress mother, acquired a high school education and showed some nascent if ambiguous signs of literary ambition. But outside of school, he barely survived on sporadic hard-scrabble jobs (working in the bean and berry fields of the rural Pacific Northwest) and his fragile psyche gradually shredded. By 20, impoverished, lost, and obsessed with unrequited love for a neighbour’s underage daughter, Brautigan landed in an Oregon state mental hospital and was subjected to electro-shock therapy.

    That was as far down as it got in the rags phase of this rags-to-riches-to-booze-soaked-rags saga. By the mid-fifties, Brautigan made it to San Francisco and was rescued by art, love and civilization. He arrived in between Allen Ginsberg’s famous public reading of Howl in 1955 and the 1957 publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, heralding a “Beat Generation.” He made some literary friends (notably, poet Ron Loewinsohn and novelist Don Carpenter), published a few poems in ephemeral little magazines, and fell in love with and married his first wife, Ginny, with whom he fathered a daughter. But the most important thing that happened to him in terms of art was that he attracted the attention of a major San Francisco poet, Jack Spicer.

    Spicer (1925-1965), a member of the “San Francisco Renaissance” poetic triumvirate that included Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, met Brautigan at The Place, a bar on upper Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach district. As Spicer did with several younger writers, he took the painfully shy, gawky, 22-year-old Brautigan under his wing. Spicer, then in his early 30s, was a professional linguist (at the University of California, Berkeley), an iconoclastic intellectual, a gay man, and a devoted drinker (the last accounts for his early death in 1965, at age 40). He was not only one of the best-educated poets and gifted pedagogues on the scene but, relevant to his mentoring of Brautigan, also a serious reader of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books, and the then little known, just-published J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. What Spicer detected in Brautigan was an imaginative kinship with those makers of magical mythologies, and a flair for the Edward Lear-like world of sober nonsense.

    Spicer saw to the publication of Brautigan’s first poetry chapbook, The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958) by White Rabbit Press, a local poetry publisher that Spicer had a hand in founding, and he published poems by Brautigan in J, the mimeographed magazine Spicer edited. One of those short poems, “The Pumpkin Tide,” gives a pretty good idea of the whimsy and charm of Brautigan’s mind: “I saw thousands of pumpkins last night / come floating in on the tide, / bumping up against the rocks and / rolling up on the beaches; / it must be Halloween in the sea.”

    Most important, though, was what Brautigan could learn from Spicer as a writer. In 1957, Spicer’s first book, After Lorca, introduced the contemporary notion of the “serial poem,” a method of integrating the one-off lyric poem within a larger narrative structure (the “book,” as Spicer referred to this form), without falling prey to the grandiosity of the would-be epic. The poems, or pieces, were not linearly connected; rather, the images, metaphors and themes “corresponded” (to use the term Baudelaire invented for such poetic relationships), not only internally but across time and space. The work was held together not by the familiar personality or author’s voice of the standard poetry “collection,” but by the correspondences of the subject matter. After Lorca was a scintillating mixture of Lorca-like poems and playlets, some of them translations and partial translations from Lorca, others poems by Spicer that were more homage than pastiche, all interwoven with “letters” from the contemporary poet to his dead Spanish predecessor that spelled out Spicer’s poetics and his stake in the poetic tradition. There was even a pitch-perfect, send-up “introduction” from the grave by Federico Garcia Lorca’s persona. After Lorca is a work that is rigorously intellectual, accessible to readers, pellucid in its beauty, and structurally innovative. In literary terms, though Spicer’s book, then and now, has received comparably little attention, it is arguably more of an achievement than Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), which had been published the previous year.

    For a young poet like Brautigan, about to embark on a prose-writing career, but who didn’t have either the inclination for sustained narrative nor an interest in “character,” “plot,” and the other fundaments of the novel, Spicer’s idea of the “serial” provided a vital clue. What Brautigan had, as he set to work in 1960-61 on Trout Fishing in America, was an understanding of the vignette or anecdote (based on the notion of the classic American yarn or folk tale); a gentle, surrealistic sense of humour; a faux-naïve voice (something like that of a generation earlier predecessor, William Saroyan); and Spicer’s notion of how the pieces might “correspond” to make a larger whole. Brautigan harnessed all that to the concept and practical activity of trout fishing (in America) and, in fact, did a good bit of fishing along the creeks of Idaho and surrounding environs, while camping that year with his wife and baby, and tapping away on the portable typewriter he’d brought along. The result was a thoroughly original serial prose work — it was as if Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams had gone fishing in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

    When Brautigan returned to San Francisco with a first draft of his manuscript, Spicer, one of the few people whose criticism the prickly novelist was likely to listen to, was there to serve as in-house (or, more exactly, in-bar) editor. As a respected poet, his imprimatur was crucial to the younger writer’s confidence. Spicer also led Brautigan to his old college friend, Don Allen, a west coast editor for Grove Press in New York, editor of Grove’s Evergreen Review magazine, and whose own small press would become the book’s first publisher before it made its way to big-time New York literary houses. When Brautigan gave a two-night reading of Trout Fishing at a former church converted into a cultural centre in December 1962 (or perhaps it was January 1963), a who’s who of established and younger San Francisco writers (myself included) was present, with Jack Spicer, one of the book’s dedicatees, sitting in the front row, vigorously nodding his pumpkin-like head and guffawing in approval. The event was a communal confirmation ceremony of that remarkable thing, the birth of a work of art, half a decade or more before it made its way to a broad, international readership.

    Biographer Hjortsberg gets down a good deal of this lynchpin story and suitably sets it in the context of the pre-hippie San Francisco scene that gave rise to the movement named for its Don Allen-edited anthology, The New American Poetry (1960). There’s not a lot of new material here that goes much beyond Lew Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s biography of Spicer, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998; still the best source for information about Spicer), or John Barber’s online archive of Brautigan materials, www.brautigan.net, but Hjortsberg has diligently interviewed most of the major participants (several of whom are now deceased) and stitched the story together in lively enough fashion. What Hjortsberg doesn’t quite get into focus, in my opinion, is the significance of this event. This is a recurrent problem in the biography which I’ll attend to in a moment.

    Following Brautigan’s artistic breakthrough is an in-between period of a half-dozen or so financially lean but artistically productive years prior to Brautigan bursting into public consciousness as a writer emblematic of the period. There’s a cache of poems and two or three more novel-like prose works released from Brautigan’s pen to swim upstream. There’s the breakup of his marriage, and a succession of girlfriends. But most of all, there are the “times” of this “life and times” saga. It’s the multi-faceted Age of Aquarius, anchored in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Among the various political, cultural, and social experiments of the era, Brautigan was most drawn to the Diggers, a 1960s group named for a seventeen century movement of agrarian communists within the English Revolution. The Diggers, who advocated a free distribution of all goods, were an aspect of the hippie side of the upheaval of the sixties, and Brautigan’s own contribution to their quixotic project was a collection of poems printed on the sides of seed packets, titled Please Plant This Book, which he gave away for free in the streets of incense-scented San Francisco. Ah, “if you’re going to San Fran-cisco / be sure to wear / some flowers in your hair,” warbled the troubadours of the day.

    After that comes the long story of Brautigan’s relatively brief fame and his drawn-out alcoholic decline. It ends, like a mournful C&W song, with an empty bottle and suicide by gunshot, at age 49, in Brautigan’s Bolinas house in 1984. The body, or what was left of it, wasn’t discovered for weeks.

    In between best-sellerdom and despair is a mostly unhappy tale, punctuated by lots of alcohol-fuelled good times. There’s another failed marriage and lesser relationships (including the almost predictable kinky sex). Some big paychecks came in whose funds were as casually dispersed as Brautigan’s own life. Then, there were those years in Montana with the hip, new good ol’ boys and Brautigan drunkenly firing a big handgun from the backporch of his rancho. The really bad scenes, as they say in the bar world, became ever more frequent. The biography extensively explores Brautigan’s fascination with Japan, which is interesting but ultimately fuzzy in terms of significance. Finally, there are a few more trout and a few more books, for a shrinking readership, written by a guy with an inflated view of his reputation. As for Brautigan’s literary afterlife, as noted San Francisco poet August Kleinzahler put it in a shrewd assessment about a dozen years ago, one of those periodic literary soundings by which writers are measured, “Time has not been kind to the writings of Richard Brautigan.” (August Kleinzahler, “No Light on in the House,” London Review of Books, Dec. 14, 2000.) He might have added that time wasn’t much kinder to the life of Brautigan.

    There’s more to say about Hjortsberg’s biography. It’s 852 pages long. The Kindle, which I read it on, displays it on 2000 Kindle screens, and it felt like 2000 pages. At several points, I found myself griping, “Gee, at this length, I could be reading Proust rather than the life story of a bad drunk.” Hjortsberg, or Gatz as he likes to refer to himself, begins with a detailed account of Brautigan’s suicide and the belated discovery of the corpse. At first, I thought, “Okay, no-nonsense California noir.” But then it went on. And on. Yes, okay, maggots do in fact infest unattended dead bodies. But it was soon evident that the first chapter was twice as long as it needed to be, overcrowded with a cast of dozens surrounding the decaying body, and swamped with TMI of every sort, a feature that characterizes much of the book.

    I can’t imagine who would want to read 852 pages about Brautigan, given the modesty of Brautigan’s work. Relatives, devoted fans, close friends or even casual acquaintances of Brautigan (like myself)? Further, I can’t understand why someone in the editorial offices of Hjortsberg’s publisher didn’t say, “Gatz, this thing has to be cut by three-four hundred pages, minimum.” Or, rather I can understand. First, these days the editorial offices of publishers are mainly empty of editors, given the state of the book business. The survivors of a decimated publishing industry are mostly in marketing and publicity, or else they’re packing small boxes in an Amazon book warehouse, or administering the program that downloads the digital book when I press the button. Second, maybe somebody did raise the matter of trimming an overlong manuscript, but no doubt Gatz himself pointed out he’d been working on this thing for 20 years, and at age 70-plus, he’s no spring chicken (neither is this reviewer). Or maybe somebody thought those scenes of Brautigan drunkenly shooting from the backporch, and even shooting up the house itself, acquired some readerly redeeming value upon repetition. Ultimately, though, the problem is biographical method.

    Hjortsberg’s idea of proceeding seems like a variation on poet William Carlos Williams’ dictum, No ideas but in things. Gatz’s version seems to be, No ideas, but every fact findable in the universe. Since all of the facts are given more or less equal weight, the point of any given episode tends to disappear. For better or worse, Hjortsberg succeeds in reconstructing every day and lonely night that could be reconstructed in Brautigan’s often sorry existence, including the name and rates of whatever flophouse to 5-star hotel the writer flopped in, the sum of Brautigan’s bar bill, and bits of potted history about every and anything, even if only distantly germane. If Brautigan at age 20 is moping about unrequited love while standing on a covered bridge in Oregon, Gatz will be sure to provide a few paragraphs about the history of covered bridges in Oregon; or if a bartender at Enrico’s in San Francisco is pouring Brautigan his thousandth drink of the night, Gatz will give you the bartender’s family history; if Brautigan is wandering around Tokyo, stopping off to view softcore Japanese porno movies, expect a disquisition on… well, you get the idea. Hjortsberg’s writing isn’t bad, but his obsessive procedure only adds up page-wise, rather than adding up in terms of meaning.

    Although Hjortsberg says much less about Brautigan’s writing or its worth than one might expect (a common fault of literary biographies), one does learn quite a bit about the later life of Brautigan. What you learn doesn’t do poor Richard any favours, but in fact I already knew about some of his decline from personal experience: I saw Brautigan myself during that period.

    We were in Tokyo in spring of 1977. I was on my way to Shanghai with a group of Canadian political activists, and we were billeted, accidently I think, at the posh New Otani Hotel. When I went up to the 31st floor restaurant for breakfast the morning of my departure, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a couple of guys standing at the entrance. Or, rather, I didn’t notice them, I smelled them. One of them was wearing a sort of cowboy hat and had a floppy blond mustache. “Richard?” I hesitantly asked, not having seen him for a decade or so. He introduced me to the other man, a British engineer he’d met in the course of an evening’s wandering. They’d been up drinking all night and had now landed at the New Otani for breakfast. After we’d filled up our plates from the line of silver serving trenchers, I joined them at a table.

    I only recall one fragment of the conversation, as we ate, looking out the wraparound windows at Tokyo thirty stories below. I wanly asked, “How’s the fishing?” Brautigan blearily gazed at me, and said, “I can hear your mind going. Tick-tock, tick-tock.” That was the last time I saw him. Of course, he couldn’t hear my mind, but perhaps he heard something going tick-tock, tick-tock.

    The story of Brautigan’s youth makes it clear that the damage to his person was early, deep, and hardly his fault. It’s no surprise when Hjortsberg documents that under the casual, whimsical, more than occasionally charming persona of adulthood is a tightly-wound, basically conservative control freak who sees to the smallest details of everything from author cover photos and book design to serious relationships and lesser pissing matches with imagined or real rivals. Add to the permanent damage and resultant vulnerability the sloppiness of long-term drinking and partying, the encroaching paranoia, fear of betrayal, and the ensuing emotional combustiveness, and you end up with, I would say, a fairly bad, mad and dangerous drunk who was lucky he didn’t shoot anybody other than himself.

    All of that, to my mind, is less important than the question of the value of the work. Here, Brautigan’s biographer is not especially helpful. Poet August Kleinzahler’s judgment is more sure-footed. In addition to registering the unkindness of posterity to Brautigan’s writing, Kleinzahler observes that by the early 1970s, “the critics were already having a go at him,” and they were, Kleinzahler says, “on the whole, quite right: he wasn’t really very good after all. The work is not without charm or felicities of style, but it is pretty thin stuff, precious, self-indulgent fluff.” Kleinzahler is here partly mocking the critics’ tone, and he suspects that Brautigan might have been permitted a “softer landing” on the way down if he wasn’t such an outsider. As for the poetry, it’s “just flat awful, no two ways about it, and now embarrassing to read, not least,” Kleinzahler admits, “because I was so infatuated with it” at the height of Brautigan’s popularity, when a volume of poetry like Rommel Drives On Deep into Egypt (1970) could be counted on to sell 50,000 copies.

    Kleinzahler allows that Trout Fishing is “arguably Brautigan’s best book.” I don’t think there’s much to argue about. Although people occasionally put in a halting good word for Brautigan’s other early books, A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) and In Watermelon Sugar (1968), or that desperate stab toward the end of his career, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980), I haven’t heard anyone seriously suggest that Trout Fishing isn’t the best of Brautigan. The argument, rather, is about just how good a book it is. If we still had a literary canon, would Trout Fishing have a place in it?

    Kleinzahler says that the writing in Trout Fishing “remains highly original and inventive,” and he credits that to Brautigan’s general liking of and knowledge about fishing. “There was in the writing something that felt new and fresh, of the moment,” Kleinzahler recalls. “Brautigan had a lightness of touch, gorgeous timing and a delicious off-handedness that always managed to hit all the right notes, in just the right sequence … Breathtaking stuff.” I concur. Maybe Trout Fishing’s virtues go even deeper than the considerable ones of touch, timing, and delicious off-handedness.

    The book, which I won’t fully reprise, begins in San Francisco’s Washington Square, a place where Brautigan liked to hang out with the winos and other impoverished characters. The park features a statue of Benjamin Franklin, and lies just across the street from the massive Saints Peter and Paul’s church, where the poor line up late in the afternoon to get a free sandwich. Against the notion of Franklin’s industrious American nature and the reality of the downtrodden in the park, one early critic saw Trout Fishing as an elegy for America, for “a pastoral ideal being lost to commercialism, environmental degradation and social decay.” In an anticipation of the self-reflexive play of postmodern writing, Brautigan’s “trout fishing in America” morphs from an ordinary concept to a character in its own right to a kind of brand name for everything from writing implements to “Trout Fishing in America terrorists.” The stories and anecdotes in the book, whether about winos in the park, or the fish that died from drinking port wine, or a trout stream that turns out to be a long, white, wooden stairway, or one that can be purchased by the length in an old junkyard, all tend to be off-centre in a revealing way.

    If the tall tale and the pastoral are among America’s fundamental literary forms, it’s easy to see Trout Fishing’s lineage going back to Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain. It was Thoreau who wrote, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Among humorous writers of his own century, Brautigan’s “trout stream of consciousness,” as someone once quipped, connects to a range of kindred spirits, from Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, to Saroyan and Ring Lardner, Jr. Trout Fishing in America may still be pretty breathtaking stuff, a moment of American vision that sees right to the bottom of time’s stream, where the current slides away, but eternity remains. It’s certainly reason enough to read Brautigan, whether or not you’re interested in reading about his life. Brautigan possibly had only one great book, but as those who drink at the trough or stream fed by the muses say, One great book is better than no great books. They also say, you have to be a pretty damn good writer even to be a “minor writer,” as Brautigan likely was.

    As for the life, well… Ditto for Hjortsberg’s Jubilee Hitchhiker. Somewhere in the middle of the muddle, a girlfriend is putting on a birthday party for Brautigan. When urged to blow out the candles on the cake in order to make his wish come true, Brautigan replied, half tongue-in-cheek, “This is the Age of Aquarius. The candles will blow themselves out.” Sometimes, however, the candles don’t extinguish themselves with a puff of air from the zeitgeist. Instead, they burn right down to the ground and gutter out.


    Recommended Reads:


    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!