Thursday, April 17, 2008

One Degree Of Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan killed himself in 1984. I was twenty-four and had never met him. However, in a six degrees of Kevin Bacon way I did once get to one degree away from Brautigan.


When I was in my very early twenties I had a job doing general office work for a company on Wells street in Old Town.

One day at lunch I was standing in a bookstore (I think it was a Barbara’s bookstore, but I don’t think they’re there anymore ) reading a new release Richard Brautigan book. Yes, in those days not only could you find Brautigan books in bookstores but they were often stacked up in the front. I don’t remember which book I was reading, but I think it may have been the already released “The Tokyo-Montana Express.” (If it was, it fits today’s post nicely, but I have no memory at all of which book it was.)

The bell over the bookstore’s front door jangled and I glanced up without really caring and looked back to my reading. But then I looked up again. Del Close was walking into the bookstore.

I and all my friends were entertainment business wannabes so I recognized him instantly. My first thought was, “Whoa, I’m in the same bookstore as Del Close.”

I wanted to be a novelist so it wasn’t a big deal to me personally, but all my friends were performance types so for me to be in the same bookstore with Close gave me a story that would trump any of their stories for a while, even if my story didn’t have a hook or any content or a cool ending.

So I just went back to my reading.

A few moments later a shadow fell across what I was reading. I looked up and Del Close was standing in front of me pointing to the book in my hand.

“Richard Brautigan. Are you a fan?” Close asked.

I said I was.

“Did you ever meet him?” Close asked. “Do you know what he’s like in real life?”

I said I’d never met him, but from reading interviews with Brautigan and from what other writers have said about him, my impression was that Brautigan was pretty much exactly the way he portrays himself in his poetry and stories.

Close took a long pause and told me that it was dangerous to try and judge writers by what they write. He told me that anyone who is good with words can present any kind of image of themselves that they want, even in interviews.

“Have you ever met Brautigan?” I asked.

Close said he’d met Brautigan once, at a party in California.

“You’ve met him,” I said. “What’s he like in real life?”

Close took another long pause, then shrugged. “Brautigan was impossible to figure out,” Close said. He said he’d talked to him for quite a while, but said he couldn’t get any kind of handle on him at all. “Normally when you talk to someone at the very least you can get a feel for whether they’re straight or gay. But with Brautigan I couldn’t even get any indication of his sexuality.”

I pointed out that I didn’t think Brautigan had ever written a gay love scene and that even the odd heterosexual scenes in “Willard and His Bowling Trophies” were driven by the odd story and the characters themselves were uncomfortable in the scenes.

Close shrugged again and told me again that you can’t really judge anyone by anything they write.

“Well, you’ve met him,” I said, again. “If you had to guess, what would you guess Brautigan was like in real life? Like what he portrays, or different?”

Close took another long pause—he was a very satisfying person to talk to because he really seemed to be into the conversation. “If I had to guess,” Close said, “I’d guess Brautigan was exactly as he portrayed himself. But then I wouldn’t take my guess very seriously.”


Other people have said similar things about writers. John Gardner someplace or another explicitly told readers his writing voice was nothing like his real life persona. And Harlan Ellison was reasonably close friends with writer Philip K. Dick (they were close enough once or twice to go to a garbage dump together and shoot rats) but after Dick’s death Ellison said someplace or another that he’d never figured out if Dick’s esoteric personality was the real deal or a writer posturing.


In the decades since Brautigan’s death, I haven’t read of anybody “setting the record straight” and publishing any tell-all revealing Brautigan to be anything other than the way he described himself.

I assume Brautigan was pretty much the way he portrayed himself.

But every now and then I have some doubts.

For instance, the novel “Sombrero Fallout” never explicitly mentions chaos theory but the content could be construed to be quite allegorical. And Brautigan was once writer-in-residence at MIT when such research was getting talked about. [Correction: He spent some time at CalTech when such research was getting talked about. Sorry! -- Mark, 04/18/08] And although the novel never really explains its own title, a ‘sombrero filter’ is an engineering term for a type of transformation or processing that changes at a distance from a center, just as the violence did in the novel.

It is possible that Brautigan’s writing—which appears so simple, so minimal, so much like the literary equivalent of a Gwen John painting—may in fact have been carefully thought out and very carefully crafted.

I don’t know. But now and then over the decades I’ve wondered.


Today I’m going to post a whole story from “The Tokyo-Montana Express.”

Now, I first read this story something like twenty-five years ago. But hardly two or three days go by when I don’t think about one or another aspect of this story. Of all the things Brautigan has written, I’m not sure why this story has sort of taken up residence in my brain, but it has.

People who know me probably could come up with one or two reasons, but that would only be guessing!

I’m not going to analyze this story because that spoils the fun for people reading it for the first time. However, this story is interesting to read more than once in light of Del Close’s warning about judging writers based on their writing. The more times you read this story, the easier it is to suspect that there might be more going on than meets the eye.

Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day? Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished? Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

If I were guessing I’d say this story is exactly what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day. But I’m a writer, too. I don’t take my guess all that seriously.

Anyway, here is my favorite passage written by my favorite author:

No Hunting Without Permission
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

October 21, 1978: Yesterday I didn’t do anything. It was like a play written for a weedy vacant lot where a theater would be built one hundred years after I am dead performed by actors whose great grandparents haven’t even been born yet. If I were keeping a diary, yesterday’s entry would have gone something like this:

    Dear Diary: I put up a no hunting sign today because tomorrow is the first day of hunting season and I don’t want some out of state hunters driving a station wagon with Louisiana license plates to stop and shoot a moose in my back yard.

I also went to a party. I was in a shitty off-angle wrong mood and said the same five boring sentences to forty different, totally unsuspecting and innocent people. It took me three hours to get around to everybody and there were very long pauses between sentences.

One sentence was an incoherent comment about the State of the Union. I substituted an obscure California weather pattern in place of a traditional Montana weather pattern to use as a metaphor about inflation.

What I said made absolutely no sense whatsoever and when I finished nobody asked me to elaborate. A few people said that they needed some more wine and excused themselves to go get some, though I could see that they still had plenty of wine in their glasses.

I also told everybody that I had seen a moose in my back yard, right outside the kitchen window. Then I did not give any more details. I just stood there staring at them while they waited patiently for me to continue talking about the moose, but that was it.

A man I told my moose story to said, “Was that the same moose you told me about yesterday?” I looked a little shocked and then said, “Yes.” The shocked expression slowly changed into one of serene bewilderment.

I think my mind is going. It is changing into a cranial junkyard. I have a huge pile of rusty tin cans the size of Mount Everest and about a million old cars that are going nowhere except between my ears.

I stayed at the party for three hours, though it seemed closer to a light-year of one-sentence moose stories.

Then I went home and watched Fantasy Island on television. As a sort of last stand spiritual pickup, I called a friend in California on the telephone during a commercial. We had a very low-keyed conversation during the commercial. He was not really that interested in talking to me. He was more interested in doing something else.

As we struggled through the conversation, like quicksand, I wondered what the first thing he would do after I hung up. Maybe he would pour himself a stiff drink or he would call somebody interesting on the telephone and tell them how boring I had become.

At one point toward the end of our thousand-mile little chat, I said, “Well, I’ve just been fishing and writing. I’ve written seven little short stories this week.”

“Nobody cares,” my friend said. And he was right.

I started to tell him that I had seen a moose in my back yard but I changed my mind. I would save it for another time. I did not want to use up my best material right away. You’ve got to think of the future.

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