Requiem for a Kool-Aid Wino: Why is Richard Brautigan, the Original George Saunders, Still Ignored?

by Mark Alvarez

My old San Francisco neighborhood has two hearts: Portsmouth Square and Washington Square. While the former is something whose name is unrecognized even by many San Franciscans, part of the vagueness they thrust upon Chinatown–despite being the spot where the state of California was founded–the latter is one of the most well-loved public spaces in the City, a green tree-lined slope decompressing North Beach density, perfect for absorbing the between-fog sun.

In the middle of Washington Square is a statue of a man. The man is Benjamin Franklin. The first time I saw it, the  statue seemed familiar to me. Every time I went to the square, I would examine the statue, study its placement, turning around it to see it against different North Beach vistas.

And then it hit me: Make a cowboy stand on the right side of the statue and a flapper lean on the statue’s left, and you have the cover of Richard Brautigan’s seminal 1960s counter-culture novel, Trout Fishing in America.

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A novel that ends with the word ‘Mayonnaise.’ A novel that had profound influence on me as a writer. A novel whose voice I still wear today.

I was nearly one of those people who flunk out of high school because of reading too many novels. And doing too many drugs. But mainly the novels. My memories of Earth Science are Stephen King and Gorezone. American History is me and Rory passing each other Naked Lunch, On the Road and Gorezone. Geometry was reading Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, anticipating every cigarette scene with a desire I’d 
up to then only experienced hoping for sex scenes in books. Geometry was 7th period, so I’d already finished Gorezone.

When I failed tenth grade, my parents put me in a drop-out prevention school. It was a weird Montessori thing in a house. Legit house. Maybe thirty students from first-grade to high school. My graduating class was four people. There were first graders in my French class. We had this guy Spencer who taught English, and probably eight other subjects as well. He was the step-brother of my friend Rory, with whom I’d spent tons of time passing Naked Lunch back and forth.

One day, Spencer assigned me a book. “Oh, what the fuck now?” I thought when I looked at it. The book’s cover was a black-and-white photo of a cowboy leaning on a mailbox in the middle of nowhere. Why would I want to read that crap?

While I rarely finish a book, I will pick up and browse any one I see. So when,a month later, I finally picked up that cowboy crap….

It is a collection of three novels. The first, A Confederate General in Big Sur, is the first Brautigan thing I ever read. Its depiction of beat types drinking gallons of port in San Francisco was instantly appealing to this Kerouac fan. What starts off as a familiar novel quickly descends into the absurd. Starting with a familiar trope and moving it as far away as possible, like Rick and Morty. It’s your typical beat-era road trip, but in the course of events, the protagonists buy an alligator. It’s not the most surreal thing in the world, but it is such a quirky idea that I started to fall in love with this absurdist beat narrative.

My love was cemented in the collection’s second novel, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western. It’s the first genre mashup I’d ever read.  The story begins as a western. I don’t remember much about it, but one of the characters loves to count. Is obsessed with counting. At night, at the campfire, he counts the number of punctuation marks in the Bible. The novel slowly morphs into a gothic horror novel, but instead of monsters,there are “The Chemicals;” elements that are like mischievous light. So it is a gothic western, but today we might also call it magic realism or fabulism.

Throughout Hawkline Monster, the quirky humor Brautigan showed in Confederate General is more on display, working as it is in an original mashup form, instead of the familiar road-trip narrative. The third novel in the collection, the underrated San Franciso novel Dreaming of Babylon, takes a straightforward noir setup—down-on-his luck detective offered a case—and turns it on its head. The reason the detective C. Card is down on his luck is because he spends most of his days asleep, dreaming of Babylon, where he is a baseball star. Dreaming of Babylon is also an underrated San Francisco novel.

Later, Brautigan got more experimental. In his novel Sombrero Fallout, a love-sick novelist throws his current draft into the trash, where it continues to write itself. Sound familiar? I got bored of metafiction in high school, so I can’t tell you exactly how many authors have used this idea, but I can tell you that it is [spoiler] the central conceit of one of the 21st-century’s most lauded novels, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper. One lauded for profound originality. 

I always wondered why Brautigan wasn’t more recognized as a serious writer in America. In Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan, Keith Abbot  insists this was in part due to a locational divide. A locational divide in the city of San Francisco. While the canonical poets and literary scene associated with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Bookstore operated in North Beach, Brautigan was part of the Haight Scene. He was the other side of postmodernism: the postmodernism of happenings, street theater, etc. Ferlinghetti said Brautigan’s potential was never truly realized because Brautigan remained a child, a naïf. But his is the postmodernism that outlived beat poetry–the postmodern of formal experimentation, of mashups, of performance. Bringing literature in the street, instead of bring the street into literature, as the beats did.

Since Brautigan remains undervalued here, I was surprised how frequently I found his novels in France, given how difficult they are to come across in his own country. Like Poe after Baudelaire’s translations. Brautigan is recognized as a counter-culture writer, the representative novelist of the hippy era, but I always thought he should have been seen as more. Especially now, as we’re allowing ‘oddball’ non-realists like Amiee Bender, George Saunders and Salvador Plascencia  into the canon.