Richard Brautigan was a familiar American type that has been with us since the days of the Yankee peddler: the self-appointed Job who wants to take on the powers that be from his chair behind the cracker barrel, the freshman who writes a history of the world without a bibliography, the guttersnipe journalist who runs the risk of becoming rich and famous by attacking Presidents–all examples of the insufferable arrogance of the common man in the presence of something beyond his grasp. Ambrose Bierce at his worst, Richard Brautigan at his best. In one of his earliest books, A Confederate General From Big Sur, Brautigan took his best cheap shots at men who lived and died defending things which a perennial dropout could never understand. The book dropped out of sight as soon as it was published in 1965, but by 1968 when it was reprinted, Brautigan was being hailed as the prophet of the counterculture.
If Brautigan started out ahead of his time, fame and his contemporaries caught up with him. Trout Fishing in America made him one of many overnight gurus to a disaffected generation. He spoke to many of the same longings as Paul Goodman and Philip Slater, but he was a lot easier to read than a literate Bohemian or a sociologist turned-philosopher. On occasion, Brautigan could bring off a vignette which seemed to make as much paradoxical sense as a line of Bob Dylan. (In the 60’s we didn’t read, we meditated.) Although he called his fictions novels, he never displayed the slightest sign of ability for sustained narrative. He had a sort of talent but never bothered to learn how to work or to be self-critical. Like too many young artists he learned to live on his juices, but by the age of 49 the juices had begun to dry up, leaving the bitter aftertaste of pleasures that have not been paid for. At his best, Brautigan was a sentimental wise guy doing monologues for his friends; at his worst–especially in what he called verse–a poet manqué.
In his life and career Brautigan displayed a mass of contradictions oddly emblematic of his generation: the darling of the drug culture who never used the stuff, the affectionate lover who could not bear to hear the name of his second wife, the futurist who refused to learn how to drive, the man of many friends who managed to kill himself and lie unnoticed for five weeks. In an interview with People (8 June 1981), he confessed:
Maybe I’m an anachronism–not of the past but of the future. A portent.
Perhaps he was–an anachronism who started out ahead in the race and ended up so far behind he gave up running. cc