By Peter Wild
There is nothing (at least so far as reading is concerned) as good as discovering a new writer. When I say ‘new writer’, I don’t mean some beautiful young scamp who has just trotted out a debut and has the world at their feet. No. When I say ‘new’ writer, I mean simply a writer who is new to you. You pick up a book (usually by chance, or on the off-chance) and – lightning strikes! Sha-zam! You stand there, almost erotically charged. Not only is the book you’ve picked up (on the off-chance, remember) amazing but, better still, you can smell a smell (like, say, cordite, something harsh but exciting), you have a hope – this writer could be a (gulp) new writer. Someone new for you to be excited about. And, better still, when you glimpse the ALSO BY THIS AUTHOR page up near the front, you see that there are maybe another dozen books to plough your way through. Like any relationship, it doesn’t always work out. Some writers just have one great book in them. Time and again, I’ve charged headlong through someone’s back catalogue only to find myself trading in diminishing returns. There are times, however, when your initial hopes are returned, with interest. The best example of this (and the closest I have ever come in my life to taking on the mantle and garb of a detective) is with Richard Brautigan.
Like a lot of Brautigan fans my age, I came to the great man through Canongate‘s fabled Rebel Inc line, maybe a decade ago. I think I’d read Fante‘s Ask the Dust and Hamsun‘s Hunger and a bunch of other things – enough to make me think that I could just about pick up any Rebel Inc and have myself a good time. This was how I came to Revenge of the Lawn, Richard Brautigan’s genius collection of what would now be called flash fiction but at the time was, I imagine, something of an oddity. Revenge of the Lawn blew me away. It was everything I wanted (and, hell, probably still want) from a book: it was sweet and sour, child-like and adult, political and sexual and (perhaps best of all) it was framed by a perspective and a sensibility that seemed profoundly new to me. Up until then I don’t think I’d read anybody who could write like Brautigan, who could write sentences that seemed at once plain and lucid and cosmic and rich and full of some yearning wisdom and… I could go on. Brautigan was easy to read (you can read almost anything by Brautigan in a single two or three hour sitting, I reckon, much like, say, Kurt Vonnegut), yes, but what he wrote lingered long after you’d finished reading. Reading Revenge of the Lawn was a little bit like eating chocolate – if eating chocolate was good for you.
A day or two after reading Revenge of the Lawn, I snapped up A Confederate General from Big Sur, which struck me then (and still sorta strikes me now) as Brautigan’s On The Road. It was his buddy book. Full to the brim with the spirit of the age in whch it was written. Sort of a pie-eyed uncle to T.C. Boyle‘s Drop City. After Confederate General came Trout Fishing in America (the book that made Brautigan’s name and still, for me, the book of his that I like the least) – and then I picked up the collections published by Houghton Miflin, two over-sized volumnes that contained, respectively, Trout Fishing in America, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar and A Confederate General from Big Sur, Dreaming of Babylon and The Hawkline Monster. Talk about a kid in a toyshop! Reading In Watermelon Sugar, Dreaming of Babylon and The Hawkline Monster consecutively remains, to this day, one of the sweetest reading marathons I ever remember having, sprawled on my bed, ordering out for pizza, reading the easily creased books with a dumb, sugar-glazed smile on my face.
After this point, however, things became a little more difficult. This was before Canongate reissued So The Wind Won’t Blow It Away and Sombrero Fallout, before Vintage reissued The Abortion. It came as such a shock to me, that a writer as – fucking – blow-me-away amazing as Richard Brautigan could possbly have a book out of print – that’s one book – never mind over half of his entire output. And it wasn’t (it couldn’t be) simply a case of shrugging my shoulders and saying to myself, Sure would like to read all those other books he wrote… I had to have them. I got a little bit obsessed. When the Brautigan bug bites you – as it bit me – it can bite deep. I started to trawl – both online (eBay, Abe Books, Alibris) and in any bookshop or charity shop I happened to pass – and it paid off! I remember picking up a beautiful second hand copy of The Abortion (possibly the sweetest and most inappropriatedly-titled book ever written) in a charity shop in Stockport for about £1.95 and skipping off down the street like Dick Van Dyke (if Dick Van Dyke had managed to somehow carry out the crime of the century). What’s more, each book I snapped up served only to further inflame my obsession. It just didn’t compute. I’d snap up a book from somewhere or other, read it – read it and love it! – and then the ‘how the FUCK can this be out of print?’ feeling would kick in (alongside a slightly more diluted ‘why didn’t people read this stuff in their hundreds of thousands of millions when the guy was alive?!?! people are morons!!’). Which made me want the stuff I didn’t have even more than I’d wanted it before I read the latest addition to my little Richard Brautigan shelf.
Over a period of about three years, I gradually worked my way through the list. Uniquely, I ‘dug’ Brautigan’s poetry as much as the fiction – but the poetry (aside of Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork and Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt) was even more difficult to track down than the fiction. I will spare our blushes and skip over the amount I paid for Please Plant This Book and The Octopus Frontier. Sometimes I had to dig deep into a pocket that didn’t always have a great deal of money in. But it was always worth it. Every book contained some treasure. I remember picking up Sombrero Fallout and June 30th, June 30th in hardback off of eBay from some guy in America and counting down the days until the parcel of books arrived (and then, when it did, sitting in my then living room with the package on my knee, savouring the moment before I opened it like the lass on the side of Keats‘ Grecian urn). Sombrero Fallout remains to this day my most favourite Brautigan book, the most perfect distillation of everything I loved about the old bird. And it may well have been the peak of my little obsession. There were a lot of books after Sombrero Fallout – books like Willard & His Bowling Trophies, books like The Tokyo-Montana Express (which I think is his most difficult, his grouchiest book), Sombrero Fallout without the laughs and the unrequited love, books like So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away and, eventually An Unfortunate Woman. And, lest we forget, there were the books about Richard Brautigan – his daughter Ianthe’s moving memoir, You Can’t Catch Death, Keith Abbot‘s Downstream from Trout Fishing in America, Kevin Ring‘s The Sad & Lonely Death of Richard Brautigan – plus all of the copies of Beat Scene I picked up here and there. There isn’t a room in my house without a copy of Beat Scene in it. Which is probably as it should be. Wouldn’t want my children growing up in a world without the odd copy of Beat Scene around, right?
These days I would say that my affair with Richard Brautigan is in the autumn of its days. Not because I love him any less. Just because I’ve read everything. The hunger to acquire has gone. I mean, I’d still kill for a signed copy of anything (never quite managed to get one of those) or even a nice fish drawing (Brautigan was given to penning the occasional fish doodle) – but I can live without them (provided I don’t think about it too much – if I think about it too much I’ll go online as soon as I finish this and start hunting like some slack-jawed yokel for some signed edition or other). I still read him, though. December 2006 was the last time I read Brautigan (reading Sombrero Fallout for maybe the fiftieth time). It’s just one of those books (like Harriet the Spy or A Confederacy of Dunces) that only improves each time you read it. In the end, that’s what we have. The books. It seems a moronic thing to say: At least we have the books. But fuck it. I don’t think it is moronic. The books are still there, in the world. You might have to hunt them down (or ask me if you can borrow them – I won’t lend them out, but you can go ahead and ask if you want). But it’s worth it. There isn’t an author alive or dead more worth hunting out than Richard Brautigan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Wild is the co-author of Before the Rain and the editor of The Flash , Perverted by Language: Fiction inspired by The Fall and The Empty Page: Fiction inspired by Sonic Youth. His writing and award-winning fiction has appeared in NOO Journal, Nude Magazine, Alt Sounds, 3:AM Magazine, and others. He is the co-founder of Bookmunch.