At one time, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America held as prominent place in the hearts and back pockets of America’s hipsters as Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, or Kesey’s One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest. At least that’s how I imagine it. Of the four iconic writers, only Brautigan imparted a sense of innocence that may have yet doomed his work to become a forgotten artifact of a time that has undergone a Gaussian blur in the social consciousness. America forgets at her own peril.
Writer and Brautigan confidant Keith Abbott paints a beautiful picture of a halcyon era in San Francisco just before everything exploded. “1966 recalls the wet touch of early morning fog and the perfume of eucalyptus,” he writes, “and I see again the smiling people in bright clothes who drifted around the Panhandle, nodding at the world so reassuringly. Such an aura of confidence, grace and mystery lasted only into 1967, but the communal sense of breaking through to a better world was there, and it was exhilarating.”
Fellow oddball Abbott met Richard Brautigan in the Haight-Ashbury in March of that year. Even though, at the time, eccentricity was quickly becoming the coin of the realm, Brautigan still managed to stand out from the crowd. Abbott describes the man who was to become an unwitting “voice of the counterculture” as a cross between Mark Twain and a heron.”
At a respectable, but not freakish six-foot-four, Abbott describes a man who seems to be eternally unfolding himself, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally. “Despite his shyness,” Abbott writes, “Richard did have a great capacity to let people into his life. His fiercest allegiance was to the imagination. One he felt you shared that with him, then his loyalty was final.”
Once Abbott was brought into the fold, sharing hijinks and adventures with Brautigan and Price Dunn—the prototype for Lee Mellon, the hero of Brautigan’s A Confederate General in Big Sur—he was to quickly discern that his friend’s easy-going humor belied a deep sense of craftsmanship and self-actualization. “Because [his] fiction seemed to be simple fantasy, I assumed at first that his personality reflected this, too … Richard was probably the most psychologically complicated and most willful person I’ve ever met. Even in his whimsical moments, he pursued his fantasies with determination.”
As a writing professor at Naropa University, Abbott has had the benefit of time and the inclination to view his friend’s work with a critical eye. He lauds the comic timing that seemed to come naturally to Brautigan’s writing. “To give a realistic base for his fiction, Brautigan often started with mundane social situations and built from there, carefully placing one rhythmically neutral sentence on top of another. This lulls the reader into a false sense of security … a good first step for comic writing. Brautigan sensed the emotional vibrations that are inevitable in the simplest sentences, so he could then upset them and introduce the lovely sense of comic panic.”
Abbott draws parallels between Brautigan’s fiction and that of Raymond Carver’s, with whom Brautigan shared a brutally hardscrabble Pacific Northwestern upbringing. “The spare early stories … have always shown a strong connection, stylistically and culturally, to Brautigan’s first two novels and short stories. Both writers create a similar West Coast landscape of unemployed men, dreaming women, or failed artists trapped in domestic and economic limbos while attempting to maintain their distinctly Western myths of self-sufficient individuality.”
Although by drawing on the lives of the underclass for material and inspiration is a traditional wellspring for American authors, Abbott noticed a fatal flaw in Brautigan’s ability, or willingness, to allow his characters to transcend their struggle with mainstream society. “He was drawn to the failed dreamers simply because they showed the most imagination. To possess imagination is to be in ceaseless conflict with social and economic worlds,” Abbott writes. “When Brautigan imagines a genius at work in the modern world, he can only come up with a slightly bitter comedy about the commercial trivialization of talent.”
This bitterness and feeling of paranoia began to severely impact Brautigan’s work and ability to conduct his life as the first intense rush of fame waned. His pathology—in the ’50s he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and clinical depression and treated with electroshock—was acerbated by alcoholism. “His attitudes were similar to those Mark Twain experienced late in his life,” Abbott relates. “Twain was enraged and disgusted with the state of society and with himself … until the death of his daughter shocked him back to reality.” Here, Abbott hits a tragic note, admitting, “I couldn’t imagine what shock could free Richard from his turmoil.”
After reading Abbott’s memoir, Brautigan’s tragic suicide in 1984 seemed presaged by any number of details and anecdotes. Most chilling for me was the odd piece of art that Brautigan had in his North Beach flat in the ’60s. A portrait of a stallion’s head surrounded by a lucky horseshoe and the words, “Fuck Death,” is—in retrospect—less of a quirky souvenir than a actual talisman to ward off the howling void.
The genius of Brautigan’s imagination allowed him to create a world diametrically opposed to the one he grew up in—a world that, for a time, took on a physical manifestation larger than he, or mainstream America, could deal with. The person we recognize as Richard Brautigan was as much a product of his imagination as anything he constructed—and ultimately, just as doomed.
“The curse and blessing of the imagination is that the mind wants to create an autonomous object, yet it can’t prevent itself from imagining that object’s eventual disintegration,” Abbott writes, “and it can’t fail to understand that by giving birth to something, that something’s death is assured.”
In the end, it is Brautigan’s Kool-Aid Wino from Trout Fishing in America that provides a key to unlock his work, while providing a fitting eulogy at the same time:
He created his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.