February 20, 2018

Richard Brautigan, Fame to Suicide

On this day in 1984 Richard Brautigan's body was found in his California home, a suicide some weeks earlier. The literary critics have never been kind to the writing, and the biographers have been unable to penetrate the writer's life, but Brautigan was a counter-culture hero in the late sixties and seventies. This was largely based on the 1967 best seller, Trout Fishing in America, but The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar were also hits, so that a 1970 feature story in Life magazine could declare, "Gentle Poet of the Young: A Cult Grows Around Richard Brautigan." There were eleven novels, nine books of poetry and two story collections in total -- plus Please Plant This Book, a giveaway collection of eight seed packets with poems on the back -- but by the time of his death the cult, the counter-culture, and Brautigan's own mental health were gone.

What remains is a dark puzzle, even to only child Ianthe Brautigan, who tries to gather the very few pieces in her 2000 memoir, You Can't Catch Death. Brautigan met his father only twice, each time for a few minutes, each time getting money for the movies. His mother was a waitress who moved around among places and men. The kids would have to collect returnables in a shopping cart (one poem is titled, "The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth's Beer Bottles"), or have to stay with a series of stepfathers. One, a fry-cook, would tie Richard to the bedpost in his hotel room, though with enough rope to look out the window ("All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace"). Another would take him hunting and rub deer's blood all over him, or come visit at the foster home so drunk that the play-wrestling nearly broke Richard's arm ("Somewhere in the World a Man is Screaming in Pain").

This growing up was in the Pacific Northwest; just before his twenty-first birthday, Brautigan was arrested for unclear reasons, sent to a mental hospital in Oregon (the same one used to shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and given a dozen electro-shock treatments. Even among friends in the San Francisco Beat crowd, Brautigan "stood to one side like a nineteenth-century statue without a pedestal, an objet d'art neglected, put in the back of the barn like a rusty threshing machine."

Ianthe Brautigan lived with her separated father off and on, at his forty-acre Montana ranch and in his California places. She describes her father as a loving parent, a dedicated writer, and an alcoholic who talked more and more about suicide. She remembers bullet holes in the walls, waking in the night to the sound of furniture being smashed, or waking in the morning to the smell of burned plastic: "I went and burned all the telephones in the house in the fireplace," Brautigan recorded in his journal for that night. "They burn with a sharp flame." The next day's entry reads, "Ianthe and I went and got some bulbs for planting. I want some daffodils in the spring." She remembers trout fishing, on what turned out to be their last time in Montana: "Back at the ranch I made a small salad and he fried up the trout. We sat enjoying each other's company in the warm kitchen ablaze with so much light that it spilled out into that dark fall evening." She painfully remembers too many other things -- famous nights of going to Francis Ford Coppola's house for a screening of Apocalypse Now, of Dennis Hopper and her father staying up all night drinking everything but a bottle of Chinese liqueur with a pickled lizard in the bottom, Hopper reciting "the soliloquy from Hamlet," presumably the one about suicide.

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