The table where the captain sat

Posted on January 23, 2007

0


By Rob McLennan

After years in the works, comes John F. Barber‘s promised collection of essays on the works of Richard Brautigan, the late lamented last of the American beat writers, Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life (Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006), most famous for his novel Trout Fishing In America (1967) and/or his selected poems, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968). Collecting new and years worth of previously published pieces on Richard Brautigan, Barber, who also administers the definitive online Brautigan resource, Brautigan Bibliography and Archive, this new book includes work by Keith Abbott, Kevin Berger, Robert Creeley, Brad Donovan, Greg Keeler, Michael McClure, Steven Moore, Michael Sexton, Barnard Turner and Erik Weber, as well as some drawings and photographs of Richard Brautigan as a younger man. Considering the amount of work Brautigan did, and the kinds of attention his work got during the 1960s and 1970s, there is both a surprising lack of critical work on his writing, and a surprising amount of hostility from critics over the years. As Barber writes in his preface:

Although he knew the Beats, and they him, Brautigan always insisted he was not a part of their literary movement. Contemporary literary opinion supports this contention, seeing Brautigan, when his writing catapulted him to international fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the writer best representative of the emerging counterculture.

At the time of his death, however, in 1984, Brautigan was largely ignored or, worse, negated by critics and pundits who then trivialized his contribution to American literature.

Barber’s collection works very hard to correct that, collecting numerous pieces from numerous years, including some of the tributes written on Brautigan in the weeks and months following his suicide in 1984, including pieces by the now-themselves-deceased poets Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn, and Dorn’s wife, Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, and make this, possibly, the only book on the work of Richard Brautigan but for Marc Chénetier‘s small book from Methuen’s Contemporary Writers series, Richard Brautigan (1983).

Brautigan saw himself and often referred to himself as a humorist. That is a designation not much used about anyone anymore, since everybody in the whole nation has become a comic. But it has been a rare thing when an artist has identified with any tradition in this century. There is a distant similarity between Brautigan and Twain. It consists almost solely in a natural innocence in regarding the evil disposition of mankind. But whereas Twain’s treatment of the condition is streaked with acid intelligence, Brautigan’s is amazingly tolerant, if not gleeful, and resembles an anthropologist’s understanding more than that of a literary man. (Edward Dorn, pp 103-4)

Moving from the critical to the personal and back very easily (sometimes within the same piece), the collection includes pieces such as ‘I Remember Richard Brautigan,’ where poet Joanne Kyger writes a series of reminiscences, starting:

I remember meeting Richard Brautigan. It is the spring of 1957. I meet Richard and Ron Loewinsohn at a gallery opening. They tell me they are poets. They are very young, like 19 or 20. Ron likes Keats and I make fun of him. Keats is so old fashioned! I give Richard my address and he comes by the next night so we can go to dinner, only he does not have much money so it means I take him. He shows me his basement in Chinatown on Washington Street where the dishes cost 49 cents each. We have a modest dinner and then go back to Grant Avenue where we run into Mike Nathan, a very young artist who has painted a picture in City Lights Bookstore’s front window of a policeman and a priest standing side by side and looking very similar. Mike wants to show me North Beach, but Richard is not happy with this and spends the rest of the evening lurking up and down upper Grant Avenue a half block behind us. He maintains this somewhat moody distance during the next two years when I see him from a distance in North Beach. He marries Ginny [Virginia Alder, 1957] (later Ginny Aste) and after a time I recall her sitting with Jack Spicer in The Place and saying, “The hardest thing I had to do was give Richard back my wedding ring.” The relationship was over [they separated in 1962; divorced in 1970] but they had a daughter, Ianthe [Elizabeth Brautigan; born 1960].

>

What this collection accomplishes is a larger portrait of the late American writer, moving from reminiscences of his early life and writings, to explorations and longer, critical essays on various aspects of his writings, as well as a piece by the founder and former curator of The Brautigan Library (a reference from the novel The Abortion). The book even includes pieces that show frustration and even anger at what Brautigan let himself turn into in later years, the “dark Brautigan” that one author refers to, the one who ended up telling his friends around both his residences that he was going to be in the other, before he turned a gun on himself in 1984, to be found in his kitchen weeks later. There aren’t that many books on Richard Brautigan out there in the world, and even Keith Abbott’s memoir of his experiences with Brautigan, Downstream from Trout Fishing in America has been out of print for so long that it’s become a rare collectable; will someone ever think to reprint it? One of the funniest pieces has to be Abbott’s own, in his ‘In the Riffles with Richard: A Profile of Richard Brautigan’ (originally published in California Fly Fisher) writing:

After viewing Richard’s eccentric collection of trout memorabilia, Price, Richard and I went out on what was to become the first of a long series of adventures in San Francisco. It was fitting that this first afternoon’s high point involved the romance and art of fishing.

Richard had cast Price as his hero Lee Mellon in the novel, A Confederate General From Big Sur, and while he retold his adventures with Price, such as silencing a pond full of frogs with two well-placed alligators, my first reaction upon reading the novel was “This is hilarious, but this Richard guy only told a fourth, at best, of the loony tune life of Price.”

Here was a guy who ran a moving service called Blue Whale Movers, a guy whose constant need for new phone service (born from a firm belief that utility companies had more than enough money and didn’t need his cash) caused his new phones to be listed under William Bonney, Delmer Dibble, Rufus Flywheel, Jesse James, and Commander Ralph G. Gore, and a guy whose first act upon renting a new house was to chainsaw all the interior walls, “because a man needs space to breathe.” (p 17)

After years of nothing new, save the fact that his books, at least, were being kept in print through a series of omnibus collections, 1999 also saw the publication of a collection of Brautigan’s writing from his 20s, The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings, and a year later, a reissue of his last novel, An Unfortunate Woman, as well as a moving tribute by his daughter Ianthe, the memoir You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir, writing about being the only child of a famous writer who killed himself, and discovering not only her place in his life, but finding and meeting his own parents he had cut himself off from so very many years before. With a writer such as Brautigan, it gets far too easily to focus on the man himself, moving further into his own suicide, that it often overlooks not only the earlier versions of who he was, but overshadows the writing; what makes this volume particularly interesting is that it focuses on all of the above, creating a larger overview for future readers and even future critics to move out from. Will there be a selected letters? Will there be a selection of Brautigan’s non-fiction pieces? Have the omnibuses run their course? But I’ll let Brautigan himself get the last word, from his collection Loading Mercury With A Pitchfork (1976):

CAROL THE WAITRESS
REMEMBERS STILL
Part 6

Yes, that’s the table where Captain Martin
sat. Yes, that one. By the window.
He would sit there alone for hours at
a time, staring out at the sea. He always
had one plain doughnut and a cup of coffee.
I don’t know what he was looking at.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob McLennan is a poet and publisher of Above/Ground Press. He has written over three dozen poetry chapbooks and seven poetry collections including The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh (Talonbooks).

Advertisements
Posted in: Reading