There is no author like Richard Brautigan (1935-1984). His writing is utterly unique, and in a society where so much is built on the shoulders of what came before, that’s very special. Early on he had literary influences, but then sailed off in his own direction, and in the process created some of the finest, most idiosyncratic, personal, and addictively readable works in modern American literature. No one has come close to capturing his style, and no one has been able to write about the (supposedly) mundane aspects of the world around us in a way that imbues them with such magic.
To Richard Brautigan, the most overlooked and seemingly trivial things — and people — were worthy of respect, appreciation, and remembrance. This can be seen not only in the subject matter of his poems, stories, and novels, but also in the way he wrote them. He is the master of the unexpected simile or adjective, and somehow, amazingly, they always work. The normal, prismed through his extraordinary mind and talent, becomes precious.
And during this time when, perhaps more than anything else, most of us just want to sit in a café with a cup of coffee, have lunch with a loved one, walk into the building where we work to begin a normal day, or go to a movie…or even just buy stamps at the post office without a plastic barrier separating us, sit on a public bench without concern, or chat with a stranger in a bar…Brautigan’s appreciation for the overlooked and trivialized has not only become particularly relevant, but also worth emulating in our own ways. Deprived of aspects of our normal routines both large and small, we need to find pleasure and fulfillment in things that previously would have gone almost unacknowledged…little things that, given proper attention, can be both meaningful and significant.
Brautigan’s “breakthrough” novel was Trout Fishing in America, first published in 1967. You’ll never read another book like it. My dad bought his copy when he was 20, at a small news store in State College in 1968. I read that same copy for the first time in 1998 when I was 20. The chapter that always stuck with me the most, and still moves me to this day, deals not with the things that are overlooked and trivialized, but the people, and how he would honor them if could. And, movingly, he did honor them, simply by writing the story. It’s called “Trout Fishing on the Bevel.” My reading of it is below.
(With special thanks to Ianthe Brautigan Swensen, for permitting me to record and post it.)
PS: the last novel Brautigan saw published in his lifetime, the elegiac So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, isn’t as well-known as Trout Fishing in America, but also addresses the forgotten and overlooked in our society in a haunting, poignant, often loving way. It is a work written by an author still at the height of his powers. In it, Brautigan wrote, “In those days people made their own imagination, like homecooking.”
We still can.