Ever since I read Richard Brautigan’s poem, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace,” I’ve been smitten with the man. This month I finally picked up the only book of Brautigan’s that I own, an omnibus containing two of his novellas, Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, and a poetry collection, The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster. It has certainly been a singular reading experience.
Brautigan’s personal story is layered with tragedy. His mother was single and overwhelmed, and throughout his childhood he experienced poverty, abuse, and dislocation, moving from town to town across the Pacific Northwest. When the family finally settled down, Brautigan showed promise as a writer for his high school paper. After graduating, he ended up in San Francisco, in the early 60s, which was the absolute perfect place and time for him.
With his acid trip-quality imagination and his simple, unpretentious, and evocative language, Brautigan channeled and distilled the irreverent, whimsical, and loving spirit of the emerging counterculture. Trout Fishing in America, written in 1961 and published in 1967, propelled him to international fame. It’s a series of loosely-connected—some might say barely-connected—short anecdotal chapters in which trout fishing is the recurrent theme. (If you’re curious, you can learn as much as you ever want to know about the book, and about the rest of Brautigan’s life and work, at John Barber’s ridiculously thorough website, American Dust.)
Many of the stories in Trout Fishing are interpretations of events from the summer-long camping and fishing trip during which he wrote the draft, but if I hadn’t read the backstory, I’d have never known what was based in reality and what was completely made up. The way Brautigan writes, it’s as if this is just his (or his narrator’s) life, hitchhiking between campsites and drinking port wine and always turning up at creeks filled with trout. Reading, it was easy to imagine myself in this world full of nature and devoid of responsibility. It’s a place that exists only in our hearts, and not on the actual planet Earth, which makes it quite hard to get to. Conduits, like Brautigan, are worth their weight in trout.
Since he was always a poet at heart, the two novellas also have a highly poetic aura about them, and I think that’s what makes them work, despite the lack of any real semblance of plot. (In Watermelon Sugar has more of one, and I like plot, so I preferred it to Trout Fishing, even though it’s less famous.) He’s got a particular talent for abstract yet vivid metaphors:
“I saw a row of old houses, huddled together like seals on a rock.”
“About every ten minutes, I would get up and stick my thumb out like a bunch of bananas.”
“The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more, and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them, but through the organic process of music the books had become virgins again. They wore their ancient copyrights like new maidenheads.”
Brautigan is also super self-referential and meta—way ahead of his time as far as the degree to which he employs this style. That, and the directness of his writing, totally collapses any sense of distance I’d normally feel with older stuff. This work is 50 to 60 years old, yet it feels like I could recite it at a bookstore tomorrow and fool most everyone into thinking it’s a new release.
Unfortunately, the reading public identified Brautigan too closely with the spirit of the 60s, and as that started to fade from the zeitgeist, so did he. Maybe he started to seem too naive, too utopian, too tender, to a world that was feeling ever more serious and bleak. Brautigan was more versatile than that, and he continued to produce interesting new work, but it didn’t resonate. He felt lost and forsaken. His depression worsened, and eventually consumed him—he committed suicide in the fall of 1984, a few months after I was born.
Luckily there is a healthy amount of writing out there about Brautigan, in addition to his own body of work. He’s a fascinating figure, and he strikes a chord with people. Via his words, he was an easy man to love, although perhaps not so easy to love for those who were close to him. His daughter, Ianthe, has written a memoir, You Can’t Catch Death, about her father and about the impact that his suicide had on her life. She was 24; he had first told her that he wanted to kill himself when she was just 9.
The downbeat facts of Brautigan’s life are difficult to square with the exuberance of his writing. I guess it was complicated. Isn’t that how it always goes?
Here is the poem. Is it ironic, or is it earnest? Heartfelt vision of a world that never came to be—or biting, prescient satire? You make the call!
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
— Richard Brautigan, 1967
That’s all I’ve got for now. Please take care, write back if you can, and I’ll see you next week (without glasses).