Borrowing the light

Posted on January 28, 2007


By Darran Anderson

Big Sur is the end of the line, the spectacular moment when America crumbles and plunges into the ocean. For all intents and purposes it’s the edge of the world, a place of last stands, a locale the Spanish invaders gave to the devil and the natives, dying of syphilis and TB in the canyons and outcrops. Beyond it is the vast expanse of the Pacific. The wild beauty and desolation of the place has long attracted bohemians, searching for fuck knows what, enlightenment, escape maybe. But beauty can’t save you and this is a place that bears it’s ghosts: there’s Kerouac with the DTs, suffering a monumental comedown that he’ll never truly recover from in Ferlinghetti‘s cabin, the poet Robinson Jeffers typing “Long live freedom and damn the ideologies” in his mock Irish roundtower, Hunter Thompson documenting the boho machinations as caretaker of the Big Sur Hot Springs, the literary outlaw Henry Miller fleeing here with old Europe in flames. Then there’s Brautigan, grandson of Moonshine Bess, court jester of the lonesome, poet laureate of the lost trails of the West Coast, hitching round the blind corners and the alcoves.

Death to the eunuchs
There is no finer chronicler of the dazed bewilderment of life than Richard Brautigan yet many have relegated him to a literary footnote. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: he’s out of time, too heartfelt for the elegantly numb and frigidly ironic Generation X, beset by critics who have long resented his stoned whimsical style, who tie him to the Sixties and bury him with flower power and Jefferson Airplane. He doesn’t belong there. Brautigan’s soul is of an earlier time, harking from the days of Twain, Bierce and Whitman. The lazy association of him solely with the hippies is wilfully false, he’s different, closer in appearance and essence to a frontiersman seeking gold in the hills. What do those eunuch critics know anyways? Throw away Brautigan and you discard part of America itself, a profoundly open, wide-eyed pioneer spirit.

“Campbell’s Soup!”
Words fail to do justice to the sad delirious beauty of The Confederate General of Big Sur, Brautigan’s first, and arguably finest, novel. Neither can the childlike lunacy of it be adequately analysed or dissected. The symphony of frogs that can only be silenced by the cry “Campbell’s Soup!”. The punctuation marks in Ecclesiastes. The alluring and ridiculous figure that is Lee Mellon, one of the funniest characters ever conjured into American writing, Brautigan’s Dean Moriarty, wrongly convinced he’s the descendant of a Civil War hero.

What a wonderful sense of distortion Lee Mellon had. “Finish that slice of bread.” That thing I was holding in my hand never had anything to do with a slice of bread. I put my hammer and chisel aside and we went up to the truck.

It’s the best introduction to Brautigan’s style; an imaginative wash of words punctuated by lucid moments and unforgettable side-characters, breezing by tranquil and easy as a morning dream. Brautigan’s not a writer where every line counts, rather scenes, moments of off-beat philosophy and transcendence appear through the mist and disappear again. He never labours a point, hitting on fantastic ideas, letting them glimmer for just a second and then, resisting the urge to pull the threads, moving on. Epiphanies simply come and pass like they do in reality. And that’s the key to him, unlike the Dadaist or the Surrealist writers, his particular brand of the surreal is firmly anchored in the everyday and buoys along like real life. It’s poetic as all his work is, bearing the influence of William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson in its charm and grace. Yet for all it’s charisma and humour (and Brautigan is one of a handful of laugh out loud writers) his grand theme is loneliness. All the charades and adventures are in avoidance of the void. There are other writers who wallow in angst and somehow seem less haunting than Brautigan. He bears life with such optimism that it makes the hidden despair all the more unjust and terrifying. For all the deceptive lightness and quiet joy of his prose you can feel the chill wind at certain moments, in the pauses, in the spaces between words.

Some amateur psychology
It’s been said of Philip Larkin that he made despair beautiful. Brautigan makes loneliness surreal. It’s no surprise when you consider his life. Growing up in abject poverty his childhood was pretty fucking grim. He rarely spoke of his experiences but harrowing tales of abuse and neglect have emerged. No stranger to destitution, when he was 20 he marched into Eugene Police Station, announced, “I am a criminal. I am going to break the law,” and then launched a rock through one of the windows. It turned out he wanted to be sent to jail so he could eat. To rub salt in the wounds the court saw fit to send him to Oregon State Hospital where he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and endured 12 electro-shock therapy sessions. You don’t shake such experiences easily. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger said Nietzsche (but then Nietzsche lost his mind). It makes you wonder when you see Brautigan appearing on all those book covers with an endless array of women that maybe he was over-compensating for solitude. That the loneliness got to him, not the fashionable existential alienation that French philosophers drool over in left bank cafes but the real one that ambushes you when it’s four in the morning and you’re lying in a bed, somewhere strange and alone.

At the centre of the world
As luck would have it he wound up in San Francisco in ’56 just in time for the literary renaissance that would make the city, for a time, the centre of the artistic world. You had the Beats and the Black Mountain Poets, Spicer and Roxroth and Ginsberg. Brautigan was in his element, diving into frenzied activity, poetry readings at San Quentin prison, collaborations with Lew Welch and the Digger activists, handing out poetry broadsheets door to door, sabotaging bus tours of tourists coming to gawk at the Haight-Ashbury hippies, recording spoken word albums for Harvest and The Beatles‘ Zapple label. By the time the mainstream caught on with the Summer of Love Brautigan had a series of successful books under his belt and was famous.

Thanks to a host of countercultural publishers (especially the phenomenal Rebel Inc) there’s much to explore in Brautigan’s canon. All those strange comic burlesques and elegiac rhapsodies, the commune intrigues of In Watermelon Sugar, the pulp detective parody Dreaming Of Babylon, his commercial breakthrough the bewildering but charming Trout Fishing in America (to this day I’ve no idea what it’s about but strangely it doesn’t seem to matter). Then there’s the moving memoir You Can’t Catch Death, the finest possible tribute, by his daughter Ianthe. Best of all are the Flann O’Brien-esque layers of the magnificent Sombrero Fallout and the Zen brilliance of his short stories and poems in Revenge of the Lawn. Here, in its complete succinct glory, is one from the pack,

‘The Scarlatti Tilt’
“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

Revenge of the eunuchs
Critics will point out the apparent immaturity of his writing (as if maturity were a stone cold virtue), that sometimes his prose reads like a classic all jumbled up with bits missing. You’ll hear it said that he is a minor figure, well damn their eyes he’s all the better for it, consider the ‘major’ figures (Proust, Milton, Tolstoy) whose monumentally unread books gather dust on a million bookshelves. Believe me, a dose of wide-eyed Brautigan is good for you. There are too many who lug around the wrong type of cynicism, who’ve sold a passionate engagement with the world for the hollow cowardice of irony and aloofness. Brautigan shows us that we can have the nerve to see the beauty of everything in spite of everything, to have the balls to do so in the face of potential ridicule, to turn our backs on cool detachment. Sure he has some misfires, ships without sails or rudders. And some will say, “Look at the way he lived his life, look at his fatalist attitudes towards women or the lack of direction of his later years.” But who among us can really judge? After all we’re all a pack of lowly dogs and the skeletons are jangling their bones in every one of our closets and that’s the wonderful leveller.

Elmo Fudd
Jan Kerouac relates a tale that makes me wish I had known the man.

Milo and I sat at a table in the breakfast room of the Jan Luyken hotel…when all of a sudden, a very unusual being appeared…

He began to talk, to no one in particular.

“I was walking through Harlem,” he began, quite naturally, as if he’d known us all his life, “and this black guy said, ‘Hey, you in de Elmo Fudd hat!’

Well, I turned around, in mortal terror, and smiled at him of course. And then his buddy said to him, ‘Man, leave de dude alone—anyone who wears an Elmo Fudd hat is awright wi’ me!’ So, you see, this hat saved my life today—or was it yesterday morning? No . . . I think it was tomorrow, as a matter of fact. Oh hell, I don’t know…Goddamnit, isn’t there any whiskey in this place?”

Borrowing the Light
The remorseful So The Wind Won’t Blow It Away was Brautigan’s last book, a moving tale of a boy who wishes he had bought a burger instead of the bullets with which he had accidentally killed his best friend. Unjustly dismissed as a sixties relic Brautigan hit the slides, an outsider even in a gallery of outsiders, a deadbeat with the soul of a Blake. The sadness always in him had deepened, hardened. One day he met his ex-wife in San Francisco and spooked ran away. He hit the bottle hard round his old haunts and returned home to Bolinas where he phoned an ex-girlfriend Marcia Clay saying he wanted to read her something. He left to find the piece and when she phoned back there was no reply. Friends called, concerned or puzzled by his absence but there was no answer. It carried on for so long his answering machine slowly lost power, his voice eerily slowing down and fading out. He was 49. He’d shot himself and lay there for six weeks until they found his body. And you consider again the loneliness.

“Night was coming in, borrowing the light. It had started borrowing just a few cents worth of light but now it was borrowing thousands of dollars worth of light every second. The light would soon be gone, the bank closed, the tellers unemployed, the bank president a suicide.” So he wrote in The Confederate General. There’s Brautigan with the night rolling in, borrowing the light, whiskey bottle in hand, .44 Smith and Wesson in the other, facing the ocean. It’s God’s punchline, his cruel joke at the expense of the jesters for daring to laugh at the way of things.

When you tire of the motorways you head off the beaten track, for the backroads, the mountain passes, the paths through woods and scrapyards. Brautigan is one, half grown over, meandering and chaotic like Big Sur itself but all the more beautiful for it. Read him not for the traces of darkness but for the life, for like all great art it is a temporary triumph of life over death, a joyous momentary reprieve for the condemned.


Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika. His writing features in The Flash fiction anthology [Social Disease] and in the Poetry Salzburg Review [Austria], the Listening To Water anthology [Foothills Publishing, NY State], BLATT magazine [Prague] and a load of websites. He has completed a collection of verse called Tesla’s Ghost, and is working on a short story collection entitled Junk and a novel entitled The Immortals.

Posted in: Essays