The seventh-grade classroom fell silent, before I noticed it and then it was too late; the teacher was standing over me and all the other kids were staring. Some were smirking.
“Give me that little book you're reading,” she demanded, holding out her craggy hand. My face flushing, I removed it from behind our boring textbook and handed it too her.
“Hmm,” she grumbled, looking at it. “Trout Fishing in America.” Her disdain was withering. “We do not read about fishing in English class, Steve.”
Busted again. She even took the book away. But what could I do? I was addicted to Richard Brautigan's writing.
Growing up in California in the 1970s was not particularly conducive to much beyond the beach, at least not for many of us. There were just too many other distractions. But for whatever reason I grew up an avid reader, and Brautigan was one of my first touchstones.
Brautigan’s early books, especially A Confederate General from Big Sur, In Watermelon Sugar, The Abortion (I was not sure I understood that one yet) Trout Fishing in America, and the short stories in Revenge of the Lawn, were not only magical in themselves but also opened up new vistas in places and other authors. They made San Francisco sound like a wondrous adventure and likely planted the idea that I would spend my life here. I went to Big Sur as soon as I was old enough to drive. I read Kerouac, Vonnegut, and even Hemingway and Faulkner when I learned that Brautigan loved and was himself influenced by them.
And then I became one of the guilty ones. I stopped reading Brautigan in the late 1970s, around the time of his novel The Hawkline Monster. I kept reading, but not him. But I was not the only one to move on from Brautigan in those years. His readership began declining with each new book. He went from being a folk hero, mobbed on the streets of the Haight and featured in LIFE magazine - the biggest thing going then - to gradual obscurity. By the 1980s he even had trouble selling a new book to a publisher. Half a dozen more books came out during those years and some of them were good ones. But by late 1984 Brautigan was dead by his own hand in his West Marin cottage.
I only met him once, and then just barely. I happened to be invited to a party and there he was, sunk deep into a couch, clutching a drink. “I wouldn’t try to talk to him if I were you,” advised a knowing local, and I took that advice. Then it was too late to ever talk with him again.
When his end came, it was worldwide news. How could it have happened that a writer who for many symbolized the best, most carefree and even innocent and adventurous spirit of the “sixties” had sunk so low?
There are lots of theories about that, of course. There’s probably elements of truth in many of them. But who really knows? His only daughter Ianthe, although she has reckoned both privately and publicly with her father’s decline and fall, refuses to buy into the tragic view of him and his legacy. She is certainly correct that his accomplishment in words lives on in a most positive manner, to be discovered and rediscovered by new and old readers.
But will they? A while back I tried a little experiment. In every bookstore I visited, even in San Francisco, I asked the clerk if they had any books by Brautigan. All too often the response was “How do you spell that?” In chain bookstores, with their cafes and CD listening stations, his name too often drew a blank. Dismaying, maybe, but again, how many young people read or listen to authors or musicians who died - or at least became obscure - before they were born? Supposedly Brautigan is still more appreciated overseas, and online there are websites and listserves devoted to him. Some of the participants on these are evidence that new, young readers do in fact discover and appreciate Brautigan. What his literary legacy will be is still uncertain.
As another experiment, I’ve tried writing like him - and failed. His work is so deceptively simple, even childlike, but behind it lurks a lot of life and hard work. Some who knew him say he labored and rewrote his work endlessly; others say he worked it all out in his head and then spilled it onto paper in almost-finished form.
Nowadays I often wander past Brautigan’s final home, and walk some of the same paths he did. Maybe I feel his presence; I’m not sure. But I do suspect that I owe him much of my love of books, reading, and writing, and maybe more.
By the way, I got my little Trout Fishing paperback back at the end of the school year. In fact, I got a whole pile of books from the teacher's box of confiscated items - Tolkien, Kesey, Hemingway, Hesse, Salinger, and a bunch of Brautigans. I guess she was trying to protect me from bad influences. Little did she know. Thanks, Richard. ¥¥