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  • Sean Smith

Clearing Out One Bookcase, Cluttering Up Another


I've been clearing out my mother's house, slowly but surely, for a while now. (I will freely admit there is part of me that doesn't want to finish, since once I do, the house goes on the market.) One of the big tasks facing me is that she accumulated something like 8,952 books -- I exaggerate, but only slightly -- and I simply can't throw them all away because, well, they're books, not old phone bills or calendars. Of course, there are some I'll take with me, and I already have (welcome to your new home, The Sympathizer, Ha Jin, Republic of Suffering).

However, I also have had to go through the books that I left behind over the years, in the bookcase in my old bedroom. It's a life-or-death struggle between sentimentality vs. practicality, and some of the casualties have been tough to bear (goodbye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Breakfast of Champions, The Hessian). But on my most recent visit, I put aside and then took home my modest Richard Brautigan collection, including The Hawkline Monster, A Confederate General from Big Sur, and his short story collection Revenge of the Lawn; I know Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar must be around someplace but I haven't found them yet.

Perspective is in order when evaluating Brautigan. He led a troubled life. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a young man, and battled depression and alcoholism throughout adulthood; he also was abusive toward his first wife, and probably many other people. He committed suicide when he was 49.

I was 17 when I first encountered him, thanks to my mother who, like my father, had a pretty good track record of finding interesting stuff for me to read. I loved Brautigan's wit, sometimes droll, sometimes outrageous. I loved his odd, bizarre imagery and metaphors: "Hawks circle in the sky like the lost springs of old railroad watches..."; "Strange fences grow on Point Reyes Peninsula which is fastened like a haunted fingerprint to the California coast"; "He walked over and watched the black Lesbian play pool with the old Italian. I stood there leaning up against the pinball machine, listening to the drunks talk about lost cities"; "...a kind of old warehousebarn-like building with used excitement everywhere...It smelled like the complete history of America."

I loved how Brautigan could put together seemingly disparate elements, like blending an Old West saga of two less-than-heroic cowboys (one of whom has OCD) with a gothic, supernatural tale involving identical twin sisters and a giant butler (The Hawkline Monster); or create a low-rent utopia that has some sort of connection (or does it?) to a fictional Civil War battle (Confederate General from Big Sur); or that he would choose Trout Fishing in America as a title for a book that has both everything and nothing to do with trout fishing in America.

And the thing is, it all seemed so effortless and low-key, that he wasn't trying to outrage or titillate or mystify, just putting his ideas and creativity out there for whoever might take interest. I can't say I regarded him as a role model, but in those first couple of years of reading his books, I was inspired to try being a little more imaginative, even a little absurd, in my writing, just to see what happened.

I still enjoy that aspect of Brautigan, but reading him now I'm also struck by how many of his books involve characters who are searching, or perhaps aimlessly wandering around, taking whatever revelations they can get but not necessarily doing anything with them. Maybe they find love, or at least romance, or some degree of satisfaction. That's something, at least.

Anyway: That crowded bookshelf shown above had plenty of room for Richard Brautigan, which is fortunate: I think I'll be checking in with him every so often.


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