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Kirby Olson

Remembering Richard Brautigan

The saddest story, again.

In early May 1974, I was in 12th grade in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was almost summer, and the sun was palpable through the windows of the physics class. The teacher was a bald-headed older man we called the Admiral. He was droning on about the periodic table of elements. It all seemed like lead, and I was about to drop off. At about that point, a pretty hippie girl who sat behind me in the class passed me a green book with a photo of a gorgeous woman on the cover sitting before a chocolate cake. I opened the book at random, and read this:

The Scarlatti Tilt
"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

Those two sentences constituted an entire story. I read it six times. Accustomed to loquacious Poe and Henry James, I was amazed at the precision: San Jose, the violin, the empty revolver, Scarlatti. Pure gold. I kept the book, and I still have it forty years later. I have all of Brautigan's books, in fact, but hadn't read him for years when I heard that a massive biography had appeared. The book is by a friend of Brautigan's, William Hjortsberg. Jubilee Hitchhiker is close to 900 pages in length, in small type. I read the first hundred pages with a magnifying glass, then switched to Kindle.

I had read previous criticism on Brautigan's work (not much of the early criticism is very good, as it partakes of the attempt to spread the hippie gospel, though there was a brilliant appreciation by Guy Davenport in the Spring 1970 issue of The Hudson Review). Since that time there have been less sanguine accounts: his friend Keith Abbott's Downstream from Trout Fishing in America, which reveals what a rat Brautigan could be to friends, and his daughter Ianthe's depressing but beautifully written You Can't Catch Death. Brautigan, to put it mildly, did not put his daughter high on his list ...

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