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People I Admire: Richard Brautigan

The first chapter of Richard Brautigan's short novel "Trout Fishing in America" (1967), a book that people used to like a lot and now remains an interesting footnote in American literature, is a description of the cover of "Trout Fishing in America." The cover is a photograph of Washington Square in San Francisco, with its statue of Benjamin Franklin.

"All around the grass is wet from the rains of early February," Brautigan writes. "There is a tall church across the street from the statue with crosses, steeples, bells, and a vast door that looks like a huge mousehole, perhaps from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and written above the door is 'Per L'Universo.'" Eventually, inexplicably, the photograph comes alive: "Around five o'clock in the afternoon of my cover for 'Trout Fishing in America,' people gather in the park across the street from the church and they are hungry. It's sandwich time for the poor." The poor people "run across the street to the church and get their sandwiches that are wrapped in newspaper. They go back to the park and unwrap the newspaper and see what their sandwiches are all about."

"A friend of mine," Brautigan adds, "unwrapped his sandwich one afternoon and looked inside to find just a leaf of spinach. That was all."

"Trout Fishing in America" is one of those novels whose contents are pretty much impossible to describe. It doesn't have a plot, and it doesn't really have any proper characters, either. It's not about fishing, although fishing is one of its more important motifs. There are chapters entitled "Hunchback Trout," "Sandbox Minus John Dillinger Equals What?," "Prelude to the Mayonnaise Chapter," and "The Mayonnaise Chapter," which form a series of whimsical, often fantastical, vaguely connected vignettes in which the phrase "Trout Fishing in America" appears again and again, attaining a sort of mystical significance extending beyond the act itself. There is a character named Trout Fishing in America, who writes letters to other characters in the book.

As I write about it, I know it sounds determinedly, overbearingly zany, and I'm not sure how to convince you that it's not, but I'll mention first that it's an amazingly funny book, a wonder of free-associative humor, whose outrageous imagination, conveyed in a zen-like calm, makes its own kind of sense. Nothing about it is realistic, yet I can't think of many books that feel more truthful; it's a novel without agenda, structure, or artifice. Its jokes, its visions, and its sadness all come direct.

Born in 1935, Brautigan grew up in poverty in the Pacific Northwest. He moved to San Francisco in the 1950s, fell in with its budding counterculture, and distributed his own poetry around the city. He's sometimes grouped with the older Beat Generation authors - who, like Brautigan, hung out at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore - but this always bothered me because, really, he had none of the petulant, self-regarding nonconformism of, say, Jack Kerouac, no genius-of-life-and-art pretense. There's a deep humility in all his work: his narrators, usually, are likable losers, who, barely scraping by, remain careful appreciators of the world's small pleasures; the coexisting phantasmagoria in his books comes unhyped, understated, confidential.

Of all the novelists I've read, Brautigan is probably the least interested in impressing his intelligence upon the reader. He was a weird guy who liked writing down his weird thoughts, not a man with a message or a serious-minded artist. His popularity reached its zenith in the late '60s, when the hippie movement embraced him and his trippy, unconventional literature, but Brautigan didn't want to be part of any movement: his eccentricity had no social or political impetus. Because he never moved beyond benign oddness, critics viewed his work as "anti-intellectual," but he wasn't an anti-intellectual; he was a very bright non-intellectual. He wasn't what they wanted a writer to be, but he refused to be anything other than what he was.

Filled as his sentences were with off-kilter similes (Brautigan once compared tree branches to "the intestines of an emerald"), his syntax was unwaveringly simple, and his deadpan style sometimes sounds a little like Vonnegut - who brought Brautigan's small-press work to the attention of a major publishing house, Delacorte - but Brautigan's tranquility, unlike Vonnegut's, conceals no dissident rage. Other authors of the '70s, like Tom Robbins, tried to lend a cerebral heft to Brautigan's brand of surrealism, but their work today seems arch and strained. Among contemporary writers, the most willing to indulge in the purposeless nuttiness of Brautigan's novels is Haruki Murakami, who has acknowledged the American writer as an influence, but Murakami, too, is more ambitious and therefore more conventionally literary.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that Brautigan was an inimitable original. His was a minor voice in literature, but the purity of his work - everything in his books is fresh and unadorned- is sort of inspiring to me. It makes me want to write a little less turgidly, a little more openly.

Brautigan's most moving novel, the semiautobiographical "So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away" (1982), was his last one, an attempt to preserve fragments of his troubled, indigent boyhood in Oregon. He committed suicide in 1984.

Nine novels by Brautigan were published during his lifetime, and for a writer so unique, maybe this was a kind of a miracle. One of his books, "The Abortion," describes a library designed to hold unpublished manuscripts, titles such as "Bacon Death" and "UFO vs. CBS," written by authors who sound like Brautigan's kindred spirits. At one point in the novel, Brautigan himself stops in to drop off a book called "Moose," and the librarian asks him what it's about. "Just another book," Brautigan replies.

Tagged: generation y