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.
Mickey Hess is an English professor at Rider University and the author of Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory and a bunch of books about hip hop.The best thing I read in 2008 was Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. It is one of my favorite books that begin with a sombrero falling to earth from outer space, and it’s one of those books that makes you feel kind of stupid for not having been reading this author all of your life.With the resurgence of interest in Donald Barthelme, people seem to have forgotten his West Coast contemporary, Richard Brautigan, who was doing similar experiments with prose and form out in California. Or it may not be that people have forgotten to include Brautigan among the pantheon of great 20th-century literary experimenters so much as he never really was included.Brautigan had the mixed luck of becoming a countercultural hero and seeing his fame peak too soon. Someone called him the last of the Beats, and his popularity among the hippies (whom truckers hated) led to truck stops not stocking his novels, which led to the literary establishment thumbing its nose at his stories. This is the way it works.Brautigan’s style of humor, while it made him a star among hippies, did not see the same response from the critics as Bartheleme or Kurt Vonnegut, two other writers whom I’d chisel into my literary Mount Rushmore. Critics, for some reason, seemed to think that Brautigan’s writing was something like jacking off.Brautigan jokes about being a hack in his short story “1/3, 1/3, 1/3,” in which a novelist who can’t write teams up with a typist who can’t type and an editor who can’t spell. The story contains one of the best lines ever in a short story: “You sur like veel cutlets don’t you Maybel said she was holding holding her pensil up her mowth.” It ends with the three of them “sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.” Man.Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel was published in 1976, simultaneously in Japan and America. Brautigan dedicates the book to Junichiro Tanizaki, and he draws from the terse prose style and short chapters employed by Tanizaki in The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man. Around this same point in his career, Brautigan wrote novels in a series of different weird genres: a gothic western, an historical romance, and a perverse mystery. They’re all good books, but they don’t all feature sombreros.Sombrero Fallout begins with a sombrero falling from the sky onto the Main Street of a small American town. Then, the very brief chapters alternate between the bizarre story of how the mayor and the townspeople deal with the sombrero (spoiler alert: they kill a librarian), and the heart-wrenching story of an American humorist who has broken up with his Japanese girlfriend, Yukiko.Just as Kurt Vonnegut depicts Kilgore Trout’s gravestone in Breakfast of Champions, Brautigan offers an epitaph for his own alter-ego in Sombrero Fallout. The American humorist was expected to live longer than Brautigan did (he killed himself in 1984, twenty-five years too soon). As 2008 – the year I discovered Richard Brautigan – comes to a close, it seems fitting that he marked this upcoming year as his projected date of death:An American Humorist1934-2009Rest in PeaceHe’s Not Jacking Off AnymoreMore from A Year in Reading 2008