Richard Brautigan, (1935-1984) RIP

Have any of you ever read any of this guy’s stuff? The classic was Trout Fishing in America (1967), an absolutely bizarre yet delicious book that completely defies description. It was a classic and a best-seller. In 1955, at age 20, he threw a rock through a police station window (!) in Oregon in an effort to get arrested so he could get something to eat (!). He was jailed but quickly transferred to a mental hospital, where he was dx’d with paranoid schizophrenia and depression and given electroshock. We never hear anything more about this dx, which seems dubious. A lot of people dx’d paranoid schizophrenia back in the 1950’s in the era of DSM-1 were actually suffering from other issues, often manic-depression or simply depression. This list of famous schizophrenics seems weird (Joke!). Ok, there’s the obvious: Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Brian Wilson (schizoaffective disorder), Skip Spence (Moby Grape), Valerie Solanas, John Nash (A Beautiful Mind is an incredible, gorgeous film – must see!), John Hinkley, Gary Heidnik, Ed Gein, Roky Erikson (13th Floor Elevators – the 1st album is out of this world, and his 1980 release The Creature With the Atom Brain is great too, especially when you realize the crazy songs were all written by a guy who was certified wacko when he was writing them), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Philip K. Dick (yeah, we was definitely cookoo in his later years, Arthur Bremer, Juan Corona, John du Pont. But Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – incredible book – read it!), Phil Spector, Cary Stayner, Nancy Spungeon, Francis Parker Yockey, Veronica Lake, Clara Bow? Anyway, those of us who grew up as hippies in the 1970’s in the US, especially in California, sort of grew up with Richard Brautigan. He’s one of my favorite authors, but critics have sort of panned his work and they were panning it from about 1971 on. William Burroughs read with Brautigan at a reading once. Brautigan showed up, very overweight and extremely drunk and could hardly stand up at the podium. I don’t know about the schizophrenia, but he definitely had depression and alcoholism, which are epidemic among authors. Why is that anyway? He seems to have been lonely his whole life, though he married and fathered a daughter. He never knew his father, growing up with a single Mom/waitress in Oregon. They were so poor that they often went days without eating. His stepfathers later beat him and his Mom. Around 20, he took off for San Francisco and lived most of his life there. He is classed among the “Late Beatniks” along with Ed Sanders, Ken Kesey (although One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest is of course a classic movie from a Kesey novel, check out also the movie Sometimes a Great Notion, an incredible movie made from another Kesey novel; Demon Box and A Confederate General in Big Sur (1964). The Wiki article says it was ignored by both fans and critics both and just dismisses it. But this book is out of this world! Wow, once again, words can’t really describe it. Is it a novel? Is it a short story collection? Is it a poetry collection? No one knows. One reviewer said that his books were things called “Brautigans,” as in none of the above. I don’t know about the schizophrenia dx, but Thomas McGuane described Brautigan as an extremely odd person. Which, again, is something we hear over and over about writers, right? McGuane is another killer author! Check out Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) – too much! He also wrote the screenplay for the little-known Rancho Deluxe (1974). The movie is a kick, you never really figure out what’s going on, but it’s funny to watch it when you’re stoned, because it’s obvious that everyone in the movie, from all the actors (obviously) to the probably the director and screenwriter is stoned to the gills on pot in every scene. In the early 1980’s, he was living in a house in Bolinas, California, and drinking himself to death. In 1984, he blew his brains out. He was so lonely and isolated (A famous writer, at that), that no one even found his body until a month later. He was found in his living room, next to the window overlooking the sea. A suicide note was supposedly found that merely said, “Messy, huh?” but that has not been confirmed. He was 49 years old. Sad. His novels have this kind of sadness about them, but it’s a whimsical kind that is very attractive. Other novels of his I have not read that are said to be good: In Watermelon Sugar (1968), The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (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) and So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away (1982) . The last five were panned by critics. The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1969), Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt (1970), June 30, June 30 (1978). June 30, June 30 was panned. It was written in Japan, where Brautigan lived for a time in the 1970’s. Revenge of the Lawn (1971), a collection of short stories, was panned, but is said to be excellent. Tom Robbins was obviously influenced by Brautigan. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1978) is fantastic! Ishmael Reed was too. I’ve never read him, but he’s supposed to be excellent. Sort of a Black counterculture novelist. Critical anthology here.

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22 thoughts on “Richard Brautigan, (1935-1984) RIP”

  1. I like Brautigan. The Hawkline Monster, his ‘gothic Western’ is my favourite so far, though it’s relatively conventional – relatively! He’s one of a select few like Burroughs and Pynchon who successfully took the direction of the modernists like Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, trying to do something other than straightforward narrative, and made something of it that feels authentic and worthwhile. Hard to think of anyone else really. I read ‘Trout Fishing’ and a Confederate General’ decades ago, but all I can remember is that they were more like poetry than prose, but I remember liking them. Most so-called ‘literary’ fiction, like the Booker prize nominees, tries to be more but ends up being less than the average detective novel ( which is where the best American writing is in my opinion), but Brautigan is worthwhile. I’ve got all his books in collections now – I suspect I’ll get round to them before ‘Against the Day’ by Pynchon. I thought ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was Great’ – I got hold of most of Robbins’ other books too. One day I’ll read everything. One day. I didn’t know there was a film of ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’ – that’s a book I had for years but never got round to and gave away a couple of weeks ago with a couple of laundry bags of other books I just had to admit I’m never going to get round to – I’ve just run out of places to put shelves. The film could save me the bother.

  2. That’s interesting, about those mental problems and supposed schizophrenic characteristics of many of those artists. Philip K. Dick, though? Even if he did become crazy late in life, can a person really become schizophrenic late in life? Isn’t it either present or not present, by late adolescence? I mean, we read the book “Do Androids Dream…” in a class last Spring, and it was really subtle and complex. I guess a person could say that Philip K. Dick had always been schizophrenic and then lost some functional capacity later in his life, but it seems like there should maybe be a more clear definition of what’s going on neuropathologically, assuming there are some structural differences in the brains of people who fit clearly into the category of schizophrenia. I don’t know how to define it, although there’s supposedly less neuronal apoptosis during development and more in adolescence among people who have schizophrenia, etc. But some people who become i.v. drug users and alcoholics, falling on the floor, for twenty years can damage their brains in many ways but don’t become schizophrenic. Yeah, that’s interesting about the way a lot of those writers ended up killing themselves. I wouldn’t be able to write fiction or stand the open-endedness of it. I value fiction-writing, but the need to just get up every day and be super creative and have no framework of rules (as in the scientific method, etc.) to govern the scope of one’s writing would be too much for me.

    1. Apparently some sort of amphetamine psychosis from doing lots of speed every day for many years. It wasn’t really schizophrenia per se. He got that way around the VALIS period.
      Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written long before, when he was not yet nuts from the speed.
      He even wrote some good stuff while he was speed-nuts, like VALIS.
      You can indeed become schizophrenic late in life, but it doesn’t happen very often. 1% of schizophrenias come on after age 45. I’ve never seen a case of it though. One thing you can get late in life is Delusional Disorder. I know an elderly woman who has that and has had it for around 15 years or so. She got it at age 60. It’s otherwise known as “Paranoia” or “Pure Paranoia.” They can actually function pretty well.
      It’s pretty clear to me, studying the issue for 30 years, that schizophrenia patients have extensive brain damage.
      Alcoholics don’t get schizophrenia from booze brain damage. Nevertheless, booze causes horrible brain damage. Most people with head injuries don’t get chronic psychosis either, but a few of them do become psychotic. Anyway, whatever that is, apparently it’s not schizophrenia.
      Not all schizophrenia comes on between 16-25. Problem is a lot of folks don’t get dx’d until later on and we don’t know when it started. I had a good friend who had paranoid schizophrenia. I met him at age 28 and it was just starting, but he had been going through a prodromal period since college, for a good 7-8 years. In the years since then, he has just gotten worse.
      People can have that vulnerability and it only triggers off late in life. Maybe their brains were less damaged. Generally, they were pretty weird people for decades before they get ill though.
      Strangely, a lot of paraphrenia (age >45 schizophrenics) are *deaf*. Really strange.

  3. That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s a good point about the way people could go on at low-level work and be really out of it and never be diagnosed with it. My perspective on things would probably change if I saw people with psychiatric symptoms in the E.R. or were seeing all of these different people on a daily basis. I probably have sort of an “ivory-tower” or “ivory-high-sophistication-gladware-freezerware-tower” perspective on things.

  4. Keith Abbot, a writer friend of Brautigan’s who also grew up in Tacoma, WA in the ’50s, wrote the only biography of Braugtigan that I know of besides a reminiscence by his daughter who wasn’t around when he was hippy royalty in San Francisco with a lifetime laminate into all the cool concerts and backstage hospitality areas where the bands shared their drugs, booze, and babes. There’s a City Arts mag handout in Seattle. A couple of issues ago they ran an excerpt from a new biography of Brautigan coming out soon. It was really detailed and I’m looking forward to reading it. The poets I hung out with in the ’70s looked down on Brautigan and Bukowski. They worshipped the ground Robert Bly walked on and
    devoured his poetry journal which was a quarterly (I think) named for each decade he published them (the Fifties, The Sixties, the Seventies). This was before Bly became a men’s movement guru. Back then he was translating Neruda and discovering poets like the now forgotten St. Giraud (Bill Knott) whose Brautigan-eque poems weren’t as funny.
    Our bioregional poet sage was Robert Sund He’d studied with Theodore Roethke who was a certified nut. Robert Bly, Robert Sund and Gary Snyder loomed large in my youth, but I still think Brautigan was a better poet because he wasn’t pushing anything other than words.

    1. Yeah I was around the poetry scene in the early 1980’s. Well poetry and lit. They all loved Bukowski. Personally, I think Bukowski sucks. What’s good about him? Where’s the talent? Do you see any talent? I don’t.
      I don’t know anything about Robert Bly. A friend of mine was into him in the 1980’s, but this guy is one of those hets who never really got into being masculine. He kind of likes to be unmasculine. He was recommending Bly to me. He compared me to Iron John because I’m a pretty traditional stoic type guy. Actually, I’m numb as a psychological defense, but anyway. I like being stoic/numb, because to me, that masculine.
      Guys are not supposed to be all touchy feely. When I was younger, I had all these feelings all the time, and I really didn’t dig it too much. Plus people were attacking me all the time for not acting like a man. So I learned up real quick, you know. Well, not so quick, but the hard way anyway. I figure you always learn the hard way. That’s life.
      Gary Snyder read some of my short fiction at a lit reading for a lit magazine and he was praising it in the bar afterwards. It’s very William Burroughs-ish. Also like Lord of the Flies.

  5. Since you seem to have a fascination for violence
    it would be interesting to read substantial commentary from you (after proper research if need be) on Hubert Selby, a guy regarded as not-the-equal of his fellow beats, but whose works are permeated with what have been regarded excellent depictions of violence.

    1. Last Exit to Brooklyn is said to be great stuff, but I never got around to reading it. But I’m a maniac on William Burroughs stuff, and that’s full of violence. I also like Alain Robbe-Grillet, which is full of lots of sick violence, but I’m not sure if I dig that sick aspect of it. I’ve read Sade too. Interesting, but not my cup of tea you know?

  6. I watched a documentary on Hubert Selby Jr. recently which was really moving. His friends called him”Cubby” and he died of respiratory failure as a result of the TB he caught from a ship load of cattle he was transporting somewhere while in the merchant marine. A lot of people who worked with “Cubby” were interviewed. They all thought he was a gentile, retiring, unpretentious saint (just like me). I only read one of Selby’s books, the first and most famous one, Last Exit to Brooklyn. And that was aeons ago. I was excited to see Nick Toshes interviewed in the Selby documentary because I’ve only seen dust jacket photos of him and I’m a big fan. But I’ve lost touch with literature entirely. I don’t read it much anymore because I’m so busy sorting out WWII and trying to get a handle on what happened to the American culture I came up in. I’m also very curious about writers who got flushed down the Memory Hole after the war. Wyndam Lewis and any 2nd string Celine’s I can find. Men with ideas that don’t fit anymore and who were dropped from the curriculum like John Dos Passos. As for contemporary writers, I hear William T. Vollman is a danger junkie and big on violence. Man, is he prolific! I generally enjoy the biographies of writers more than their books.

    1. William T. Vollman is pretty good. I read “Poor People.” It’s not bad, but he has this style that kind of wanders all over the place and is kind of annoying. He’s also my age and he still gets high. He writes about it in his books. He smokes heroin, smokes crack, smokes pot. He’s just a recreational user who dabbles a bit and never gets hooked.
      Celine is incredible! I read some of those later books – North, Castle to Castle, Rigadoon. Wow man! Incredible!

  7. Robert Bly? I read that ‘Iron John’. Pathetic. I remember it starting off something like ” all the young men I meet these days feel guilty about … their sexuality…” or something like that, only worse. What planet’s he from? Does he only meet young men at gay upper-class Berkeley male guilt therapy sessions? Does someone else do his shopping for him? Does he ever turn on the tv or radio? Maybe he doesn’t – I didn’t for years, and frankly I think I was better for it. But anyone who thinks there’s a general crisis of masculinity is seriously out of touch with reality. I wonder (in fact suspect) if he’s the sort that doesn’t really consider the non-academic lower classes to be real people. Typical lefty – I assume he’s a lefty, or thinks he is. We all know that there’s a hardcore clique of man-hating feminists who are very pushy in academic life, and I’m sure they can make real trouble for the occasional person – probably for less well-off financially, insecure nice guys, an easy target – but I just don’t get the feeling that there’s even a significant minority of women, much less men, who give them a second thought. Do US undergraduates not listen to hip-hop, do drugs and fuck like bunnies? Hard to believe not.
    Is Bly gay? That’s what I assumed from reading Iron John. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s in certain academic and political circles that you tend to find this alliance of gay men and ambitious (pseudo-feminist) women pushing the preposterous notion that whatever ‘culture’ their little cliques have evolved is a new generalised norm and an unquestionably good thing that all have to live up to. Robert (Lindsay) had a little discussion on solipsism a few blogs ago; this seems to me an example of that – assuming that your individual experience is universal, without evidence ( maybe that’s a misuse of the word.)
    And what makes Bly a poet? I haven’t read his translations, but at least it shows some track record of productive interest in poetry. But I’d read him in the Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry ( you know, the famous collection) before I read Iron John, and I’d had him down as one of those included who basically wrote a couple of sentences and called them poems ( I’m sure that’s not news to anyone here), and so I figured that he’s just in with the clique who decide which sentences are poems and which are just short postcards from your holiday. British poetry is just as bad, if not worse. Who needs it?
    At least Brautigan ploughed his own furrow. That’s genuine poetry for me – or experimental lit or something. It sticks in my mind a bit anyway. Let me recommend the Hawkline Monster again. It’s a straightforward narrative about 2 mercenaries, just returned from putting down insurgents in the Philippines, who head ‘out West’ and come across two women in a cabin who are having trouble with a ‘monster’. It’s an easy read and very funny. What more do you want?

  8. I read “Iron John,” too. And “Fire in the Belly,” by Sam Keen. It didn’t occur to me at the time that a lot of guys would greet their ideas with either indifference or derision. Men being more introspective was a good thing, wasn’t it?
    But that was a long time ago. Guys I’ve known haven’t had the slightest sense that they needed to be fixed, not even the ones who were the most screwed up. What’s equally fascinating is that none of them thought I needed to be fixed, either. Or that the relationship we had needed to be “worked on,” no matter what was wrong with it.
    The fact that men simply don’t think the way women do drives some of us nuts.

  9. alpha unit – It’s a long time since I read Iron John but I’m pretty sure my memory is accurate that it was not about getting men to be more introspective, but rather it claimed to be an antidote to a ubiquitous tendency in contemporary men to have become TOO introspective out of respect for feminists’ genuine concerns, and so sought to lead them back to a guilt free re-connection with a healthy masculinity. Iron John, the title, is a symbol of the sort of rugged masculine role-model that is so hard to find these days – you know, like Bruce Willis, or Clint Eastwood, or Vin Diesel or Schwarzie, or … Ridiculous! I know the book was written before the apotheosis of hip-hop culture, but all the same… By the way, I personally don’t think men being a bit more introspective is a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t get to the ” native hue of resolution is sicklied over by the pale cast of thought…”[Hamlet’s soliloquy] stage, i.e. getting so guilt-ridden that they can’t, metaphorically speaking, ‘get it up’, which is what a lot of feminists seem to want. And personally I can’t stand hip-hop, anything about it, music, words, culture – a world that has these sort of dreams is in serious trouble.

    1. Yes, you’re right about “Iron John.” I am confusing its message with that of “Fire in the Belly,” probably.
      I guess what I mean is that there are numerous guys who would have no use for either type of book, because who and what they are is not really in question. Maybe this is what makes men different from women.
      I appreciate this a lot more now than I did when I was young and I believed that if men could just be fixed the world would be a much better place. I was quite an antagonistic little feminist when I was very young. But I grew up!
      There are no saints in human flesh, I get that. But there is a lot to be admired in the accomplishments of men.

    2. I’m a real introspective guy. So much, I’m off in my own world most of the time. People in general, and women in particular, seem to really hate this aspect of me. I can’t say it’s done me any good. Life is better for those “I don’t give a fuck” guys.

  10. Robert Bly isn’t gay. At least he wasn’t when my poetry pals were worshipping him. He had a wife named Carol who was a well known short story writer. She caught him in an affair with a young female student and confronted him at their rural home in Minnesota. She asked why he’d risked destroying their marriage and family by bedding this girl. Bly lowered his head and was silent for a long while then answered, “She’s not a woman she’s a river.”

  11. Mike Rust told me that story about Bly. It’s a poetry joke that I didn’t tell right. Carol Bly did divorce him over an affair I think, but he didn’t try to weasel out of it by trying to convince his angry spouse that his mistress was a river.
    Another bad poetry joke is about the Tang Dynasty nature poet Wang Wei….”Man who go Wang Wei
    on a one way get tickee.”
    My poetry pals were also big on Kenneth Rexroth who translated a lot old Chinese poetry. Rexroth had a radio show that our local listener supported pre-NPR station KRAB fm used to broadcast along with cosmic talks by Alan Watts. For awhile my highschool career choice was “poet.” Poets were the rock stars of the emerging counter culture circa 1963. I remember a friend sending me a little chapbook by Richard Brautigan entitled The Octopus Frontier. It was a rare treasure because it was bought off the poetry ‘zine rack in the basement of The City Lights Bookstore which was our poetry Mecca. The Evergreen review published a chapter from Brautigan’s first novel A Confederate General from Big Sur before Grove Press released it. It came out with a cover portrait of a faceless civil war soldier by Larry Rivers. It was around that time that I wrote away for a membership in Timothy Leary’s IFIF (International Federation for Internal Freedom). I was in highschool and a woman named Cynthia Genzer, a genuine beatnik from Harvard Square, sent me back a “peyote button” which was, like, a used campaign button with the word “peyote” hand painted over it. I also joined Art Kleps’ Neo American Church. This was a big inside joke like The Church of the Sub Genius minus the “Slack.” My desire to become a poet was really just about getting my sweaty little hands on some drugs.

  12. Correction: It was Lisa Bieberman who sent me the “peyote” button, not Cynthia Genzer. Cynthia Genzer is/was a poetess and the lead singer of the punk band Chinas Comidas. Kenneth Rexroth mentored Gary Snyder, but they fell out over some little thing I can’t remember. I think it may have been the company Snyder was keeping. Rexroth didn’t really like the Beats. He lived to see the hippies stream into working class San Francisco and he didn’t think much of them either. Lenore Kandel was a cause celeb when I arrived. The Love Book had just been censored and Jeff Berner, its publisher, was the toast of the town for fifteen minutes. I remember stopping to look at a Gustav Dore inspired poster for a screening of Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising on a telephone pole and thinking it was dark and unholy and anti-Flower Power.

  13. re “the now forgotten Bill Knott” mentioned above:
    his last collection of poems was published in 2004 by Farrar Straus & Giroux, which also publishes other forgotten poets like Seamus Heaney and Robert Pinsky et al

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