Analysis of Richard Brautigan’s Novels

Short-story writer, novelist, and poet, Richard Brautigan (1935 – 1984) created a stream of works that resist simple categories—in fact, defy categorization altogether. Much of his popularity can be attributed to his peculiar style, his unconventional plots, simple language, and marvelous humor, which together provide a melancholy vision of American life and the elusive American Dream. Much of Brautigan’s work involves the search for simplicity—an expansion of the Emersonian search for pastoral America. Yet, the complacent rural life is no longer available in Brautigan’s world: All the trout streams have been sold to the highest bidder, all the campgrounds are already filled, in fact overflowing; yet, the search must go on for new places where the imagination can still roam free—to a pastoral America where the individual can escape the suffocating din of technocracy.

Baron_Wolman_Richard_BrautiBrautigan’s work evolved into a new, unorthodox version of the American novel. His experimentation with language, structure, characterization, plot, and motif broke new ground. Because of this, many critics have been unable to characterize his work with ease. Unable to pinpoint his exact standing, they have dismissed him as a counterculture phenomenon, a faddish nonentity. Although Brautigan’s oeuvre is indeed very uneven, his best work is genuinely original and ensures him a lasting place in American literature.

Richard Brautigan’s novels are generally characterized by the appearance of a first-person narrator (sometimes identified in the third person as Brautigan himself) who presents an autobiographical, often whimsical story. Brautigan’s work employs simple, direct, short, and usually repetitive sentences. In his best work, he has an uncanny ability to create vibrant and compelling scenes from apparently banal subject matter. It is the voice of the “I,” however, that carries the Brautigan novel, a voice that often unifies virtually plotless and quite heterogeneous materials.

A Confederate General from Big Sur

Brautigan’s first published novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, is perhaps his funniest. A burlesque of American society long after the Civil War, the story is told by Jesse, a gentle, shy, withdrawn narrator (not unlike Brautigan himself) who meets Lee Mellon, a rebel, dropout, and activist living in San Francisco. Lee soon moves to Oakland, California, where he lives, rent-free, at the home of a committed mental patient. The story then moves to Big Sur, where Lee and Jesse live in a cabin, again owned by a mental patient. As Jesse and Lee figure out how to cope with life and no money, they find a fortune of six dollars and some loose change, get rip-roaring drunk in Monterey, and discover Elaine and a great deal of money. Johnston Wade, a crazed insurance man, arrives on the scene, informing everyone that he is fleeing from his wife and daughter (they want to commit him to a mental institution). He leaves as abruptly as he arrived, remembering an important business appointment he must keep. The book ends, as it must, without ending.

In A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan is facing the question of how to cope with civilization. The flight from technology toward wilderness holds risks of its own. Brautigan offers no answers. Human life is not unlike that of the bugs sitting on the log Jesse has thrown into the fire. They sit there on the log, staring out at Jesse as the flames leap around them.

The theme of the novel is the ambition to control one’s life and destiny. The ownership of the Big Sur log cabin by a mental patient and JohnstonWade’s mental aberrations only serve to illustrate the fleeting control all people have over their lives. Brautigan introduces Wade to burlesque the myth of American destiny. He is a parody, a ridiculous image of American business and technocracy: the self-made man running away from his wife and child who suddenly remembers an important business engagement.

brautigan-pan-640x330In Watermelon Sugar 

Although not published until 1968, In Watermelon Sugar was written in 1964, during Brautigan’s evolution from poet to novelist. The book reflects this evolutionary change, for in many ways it is more poetic than novelistic in its form. The story is that of a young man who lives in a small community after an unspecified cataclysm. In the first of the three parts of the book, the shy and gentle narrator tells the reader about himself and his friends. Their peaceful life was not always so, he explains, and he tells about iDEATH, a central gathering place that is more a state of mind than an actual physical location. In the second part of the novel, the narrator has a terrible dream of carnage and self-mutilation. The third part of the book begins with the narrator’s awakening, strangely refreshed after the terrible dream. The gentle, leisurely pace of the first part then restores itself.

In Watermelon Sugar is like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932): a utopian novel of the Garden of Eden, springing forth out of the chaos of today’s world. It is his vision of the rustic good life in postindustrial society. From watermelons comes the juice that is made into sugar, the stuff of the lives and dreams of the people of iDEATH. By controlling their own lives, by creating their own order, the people of iDEATH recover society from chaos. The sense of order and recurrence is set in the very first line of the book, which both begins and ends “in watermelon sugar.” That phrase is also used as the title of the first part of the book, as well as the title of the first chapter. Like a refrain, it sets a pattern and order in a world in which people live in harmony with nature.

The Abortion

Like several of Brautigan’s books, The Abortion: An Historical Romance spent some time in the library of unpublished books that it describes, where dreams go (and can be found). The world of The Abortion is that of a public library in California: not an ordinary library, but one where losers bring their unpublishable books. Again Brautigan’s narrator is a shy, introverted recluse—the librarian, unnamed because he is ordinary, like the people who bring their books to the library to have them shelved. Brautigan himself visits the library at one point in the novel to bring in Moose; he is tall and blond, with an anachronistic appearance, looking as if he would be more comfortable in another era. That circumstance is certainly the case with the narrator as well.

There is less action in The Abortion than in most of Brautigan’s novels; the book plods along slowly, mimicking its central theme, which is that a series of short, tentative steps can lead one out of a personal and social labyrinth and toward the promise of a new life. Before the reader knows it, however, the librarian is out in the rain with a young woman; she gets pregnant; and they journey to Tijuana so she can have an abortion. The woman is called Vida, and she represents life in the twentieth century. The librarian struggles with his inner self, afraid to move from the old ways, afraid to let go of his innocence. Brautigan contrasts him with his partner, Foster, a wild caveman who takes care of the books that have been moved from the library to dead storage in a cave. Foster is loud and outgoing—the opposite of the timid librarian—and he thinks of the library as an asylum.

With Vida, the librarian becomes embroiled in a quest for survival. Vida brings him out of the library into the world of change and conflict. He is frightened by it, but, step by tentative step, he confronts it.

The Abortion is a commentary on American culture. Brautigan draws a loose parallel between the library and American history: The librarian-narrator is the thirtysixth caretaker of the library; at the time the book was written, there had been thirtysix presidents of the United States. The origins of the mysterious library go back into the American past as well, just as Brautigan himself appears as an anachronism from an earlier, easier time.

Although Brautigan laments the times gone by and yearns for the “good old days” and the leisurely pace of the library, he also holds out hope for a fresh alternative. American culture has nearly been destroyed—the playboy beauty queen named Vida hates herself, and bombs and industrial technocracy threaten lives and deaden spirits. Strangely enough, by destroying life—by the abortion—one can begin anew, start a new life. The narrator and Vida share this hopefulness, which was widespread in the counterculture when The Abortion was published.

The Hawkline Monster 

With The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, Brautigan began a series of novels that adapt the conventions of genre fiction in a quirky, unpredictable manner. Not strictly parodies, these hybrids sometimes achieve wonderful effects—odd, unsettling, comical—and sometimes fall flat. Combining the gothic novel, theWestern, and a dash of romance, The Hawkline Monster is set in eastern Oregon during 1902 and centers on a magical Victorian house occupied by two equally baffling Victorian maidens with curious habits. The unreality of the situation does not affect the two unruffled Western heroes of the book, however, who methodically go about their task of killing the Hawkline Monster. The problem is not only to find the monster but also to discover what it is; the ice caves under the house complete the unreality of the situation. Brautigan moves lyrically from the mundane to the magical in this fusion of the real and the surreal.

 Trout Fishing in America

Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan’s most famous novel and his best, is a short, visionary inscape of the American nightmare. Brautigan has created a tragic symbol of what has happened to America: The trout streams are all gone, the campgrounds are full; escape to the American pastoral is no longer possible. However, Brautigan assures his readers that all is not lost—there is still a place where they can find freedom. If all the land is being used and one cannot physically escape the city, then one must escape to the pastoral realm of one’s imagination. Trout fishing, Brautigan insists, is thus a way of recapturing the simple while remaining aware of the complex.

Trout Fishing in America, like much of Brautigan’s work (including his last novel, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away), is autobiographical. The gentle, withdrawn narrator uses trout fishing as a central metaphor. A victim of the technological world, the narrator creates his own watery realm, complete with its own boundaries—a place where he can find solace from the technological stranglehold. His vision implies that all people have a fundamental right to the abundant richness and good life that America can provide but that are denied to many because the bankrupt ideas of the past still hold sway. Aware of the complexities of American life, Brautigan seems to be exhorting his readers to recapture the simple life, to escape the confinement of the city for the freedom of the wilderness. If that wilderness in the actual sense is cut off and no longer accessible; if all the trout streams have been developed, disassembled, and sold; if the horizon is now not new but old and despoiled; if the parks are already overcrowded; if there is no other way, then one must escape through the imagination.

So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away 

InSo the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, Brautigan gives readers a glimpse of what post-Trout Fishing in America life has become. Billed as an “American tragedy,” So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away focuses on the tragedy that America and American life have become: “dust . . . American . . . dust.”

Written, as are most of his novels, in the first person, Brautigan’s novel is the memoir of an anonymous boy reared in welfare-state poverty somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Unloved but tolerated by his mother, the boy and his family go from town to town, meeting an odd assortment of minor characters. Although undeveloped, these characters serve to carry the novel’s theme and serve as victims of the technocracy America has become. There is an old pensioner who lives in a packing-crate shack; adept at carpentry, the old man built a beautiful dock and boat and knows all the best fishing spots on the pond near his home, but he does not use his knowledge or equipment. A gas-station attendant who cares nothing about selling gas but likes to sell worms to fishermen also appears on the scene. There is a thirty-five-year-old alcoholic who traded ambition for beer; charged with the safety of the sawmill, the man dresses in finery (although readers are told that his appearances are not true-tolife), cares nothing about his job, and is continually encircled by boys who swoop like vultures to take his empty bottles back to the store for credit. Like America itself, the guard has brittle bones resembling dried-out weeds. Finally, Brautigan introduces a husband and wife who, each night, carry their living-room furniture to the pond, set it up, and fish all night.

Brautigan presents America as having come to the end of its greatness, like the end of a summer afternoon. The technological success that spurred the country to greatness has resulted in its downfall. The husband and wife have changed all their electrical lamps to kerosene and await the cool evening with its refreshing possibilities, but as they patiently fish in the wrong spot, America goes on, killing its imagination with the technology of mindless television.

So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away ends with the horrible climax of the death of a boy, shot by mistake in an orchard that has been left to die.With that end, however, is the beginning of a new life, for, though the orchard has been left alone to die, new fruit will grow. The novel recalls the message of The Abortion: The substitutions of the confinement of the city for the freedom of the wilderness, and of television for imagination, are choices people have. With this novel, Brautigan returned to the successful themes of his earliest novels, warning that to go on will result only in dust.

Major works
Principal long fiction: A Confederate General from Big Sur, 1964; Trout Fishing in America, 1967; In Watermelon Sugar, 1968; The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 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, 2000.
Short fiction: Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970, 1971.
Poetry: The Return of the Rivers, 1957; The Galilee Hitch-Hiker, 1958; Lay the Marble Tea: Twenty-four Poems, 1959; The Octopus Frontier, 1960; All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace, 1967; Please Plant This Book, 1968; The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, 1968; Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt, 1970; Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork, 1976; June 30th, June 30th, 1978.
Miscellaneous: The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings, 1995.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


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