The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 24, 2007

Brautigan of the Beat

A very faint bell rang recently when I read Jabberwock's review of Salmon Fishing in Yemen. It was tolling for Trout Fishing in America, a book I had heard of, although I did not know the author's name. Not being a fan of Beat literature, unlike my pal Ema, I had not heard of Richard Brautigan. Recently, however, I encountered his The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western. It turned out to be one of the more imaginative, whimsical, funny, and peculiar books I have read in a while.

Brautigan, unlike the other acid-head and jazzer Beatniks, was an alcoholic and a depressive. This possibly stemmed from his misbegotten childhood, abused by successive stepfathers who also treated his mother violently. Flower-power aficionados and hippies proclaimed him their chief, but he disdained them and steered well clear of the lot.

In his books, he explored the power of imagination, both good and bad, embodying it as a monster with the power to turn objects and thoughts into whatever amused it. As though to keep at bay the demons of his blighted childhood, his books have an innocence permeated with a constant thrum of menace. Sadly, despite the popularity of his books, particularly among the youth, he was condemned by critics as a naif who never matured as an author.

The Hawkline Monster is a strange tale of two hired guns Greer and Cameron who are retained by the lovely and mysterious Magic Child to rid Miss Hawkline's home of a monster. The writing is simple and unelaborated, concise and apropos. Consider this short chapter:
"Coffee" with the widow

A couple of hours later, the stage-coach stopped at Widow Jane's house. The driver always liked to have a cup of "coffee" with the widow on his way to Billy.

What he meant by a cup of coffee wasn't really a cup of coffee. He had a romance going with the widow and he'd stop the stage-coach at her house and just parade all the passengers in. The widow would give everybody a cup of coffee and there always was a big platter of homemade doughnuts on the kitchen table.

Widow Jane was a very thin but jolly woman in her early forties.

Then the driver, carrying a ceremonial cup of coffee in his hand, and the widow would go upstairs. All the passengers would sit downstairs in the kitchen, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, while the driver would be upstairs with the widow in her bedroom having his "coffee".

The squeaking of the bedsprings shook the house like mechanical rain.
Greer and Cameron are superbly delineated characters, cut in crystalline prose, quirky, ridiculous yet dangerously effective. Together, they make a chilling pair of killers, although individually they are self-effacing and vaguely cuddly:
The voyage from San Francisco to Hawaii had been the most terrifying experience Greer and Cameron had ever gone through, even more terrible than the time they shot a deputy sheriff in Idaho ten times and he wouldn't die and Greer finally had to say to the deputy sheriff, "Please die because we don't want to shoot you again." And the deputy sheriff had said, "OK, I'll die, but don't shoot me again."

"We won't shoot you again," Cameron had said.

"OK, I'm dead,' and he was.
The killers follow the Indian woman to a strange ice-cold house in the country. They encounter shapeshifters, beautiful and immensely horny women, a circus-freak for a butler, chemical experiments gone wrong, and face down the monster itself in an anticlimactic denouement. Never mind: in this book, the plot is of tertiary importance; what appeals is the quiet humour, vivid imagination, and inventive language.

Richard Brautigan shot himself at the age of 49, dying alone in his outback home in California. He had heavily bunkered down in his outback post in California, friends hadn't seen him in ages, and police could only say, when they did discover his body, that the corpse had been there for weeks. Before his death though, the few friends he did have noted Richard's taste for liquor and guns, and when his body was found, so too were hundreds of bullet holes in doors, walls and the ceiling. These were indeed strange times.

Thinking About Richard Brautigan


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