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Richard Brautigan: Tortured prankster

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By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Throughout his life, Richard Brautigan was a troubled soul. He rarely spoke about his childhood, but some of his close friends knew that he grew up in poverty near White Sulphur Springs, Montana, without knowing who his father was, often abandoned by his mother, trying to feed his younger sister and avoid getting abused. 

After publishing the 1967 novel “Trout Fishing in America,” Brautigan quickly went from an unknown Haight-Ashbury poet to an internationally known outdoors writer and prominent voice of 1960s counterculture. His ability to channel and give expression to the disillusionment that many in the hippie generation felt about the “American Dream” during the 60s gained him a certain amount of fame. 

His two other novels from that decade, “A Confederate General in Big Sur” and “In Watermelon Sugar,” cemented his status as a literary guru to the flower children.

Brautigan wasn’t just a hippie. After becoming friends with Thomas McGuane in San Francisco, he would eventually visit Montana’s Paradise Valley and end up buying a 40-acre ranch in Pine Creek, near Livingston. He loved to drink hard and shoot guns. Or maybe he was an alcoholic with a temper problem. The best way to learn about the man’s psyche would be to read William “Gatz” Hjortsberg’s biography called “Jubilee Hitchhiker.”

My favorite writings by Brautigan are when he’s talking about what drew him back to Montana from the West Coast. Drawing on the contrasts of Japanese culture and rural American life, from the hyper-urban to the rural, from East to West, “The Tokyo-Montana Express” is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories—it’s somewhere in between. 

The author described the book as 131 vignettes, each representing a station on a fictional train ride from Japan to Montana. I think it’s actually best to pick this book up and read it piecemeal. It doesn’t matter what order they’re read, given that most sections come off as self-contained daydreams.

My favorite piece is an uproarious tale of revenge called “The Good Work of Chickens.” Here is Brautigan doing what he did best: blending parody and dark comedy with his eccentric imagination to produce a high-wire act of satire and cutting commentary on human nature. 

Brautigan’s life and legacy remind me of the plot of an Italian opera in which a man goes to his doctor complaining about depression and anxiety. The doctor tells him there just so happens to be a famous clown named Pagliacci in town, and if he goes and sees him he will laugh and feel more relaxed—to which the patient responds, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci!” 

Brautigan died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in San Francisco in 1984.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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