In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan: Did you ever think this: I don’t know how I made it this far in my life without having read this book? If you’re familiar with Richard Brautigan’s bizarro, late-sixties masterpiece Trout Fishing in America or Sombrero Fallout, or even if you’re not, reading this book is like realizing there is an entire room somewhere in your house that you never had the chance to visit before, a world of talking tigers, junk heaps, and underwater coffins. Unlike the work of so many well-regarded, contemporary writers whose memoir or journalistic style seems like a literary stand-in for reality television, Richard Brautigan’s intricate, poetic fantasia is an invitation to use your imagination, and somewhere, turning the pages, you have the sense you’ve stepped into someone else’s dream.
This novella, first published in 1968, takes place at a commune in a post-apocalyptic world where commune members harvest the sugar from watermelons to build everything from homes to coffins. Each day the sun seems to be a different color which produces different color watermelons. The story follows the unnamed narrator and his relationship with two women, his ex-lover Margaret, who’s grown tired of the commune and begins investigating an enormous trash heap piled high with objects collected from the fallen, outside world, and Pauline, another commune member who he’s begun falling in love with. At the center of this book is a question about the possibility of human happiness that is at once quiet and devastating, but what really resonates is the subtle, dream logic of Brautigan’s minimalist, incandescent writing. The narrator, at one point in the book, describes how his parents were killed by talking tigers while he was doing his math homework at the table one day. The tigers look up from mauling his mother and father and say, “We’re not going to hurt you. We don’t hurt children,” and then offer to help him finish his homework. What this book is then is not just an opportunity to observe what is possible in our own imagination, but in the realm of storytelling.