Downstream From Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan by Keith Abbott
Richard Brautigan’s story ended in 1984 with a self-inflicted gunshot in the kitchen of his Bolinas home. Friends were shocked, if not altogether surprised. Toward the end of his life, Brautigan’s mood had been increasingly mercurial, his actions more outlandish. He always had the ability to be a jerk, but his friends were finding it more and more difficult to be around him. As one friend put it, “Richard was going down his list of friends and knocking them off one by one.” He was drinking heavily, behaving erratically, isolating himself and suffering from insomnia. When Abbott, a friend and member of Brautigan’s inner circle, related to another friend, Price Dunn (inspiration for Brautigan’s A Confederate General from Big Sur), that Richard had signed his name as “Montana Faust” on a proof, Price simply said, “Richard’s gone insane.”
Born in Tacoma, Washington, Brautigan grew up fatherless and poor. Although he spoke little about his upbringing, Abbott was able to piece bits together. It had been a tough childhood. As a kid, Brautigan had been involved in an accident involving a gun (inspiration for So the Wind Won’t Blot It All Away). He was later institutionalized and subjected to electro-shock therapy before making his way to San Francisco. Those experiences along with Brautigan’s abject poverty shaped who he would become. He was conscious of ditching his “country bumpkin” image early in his career.
By the time Brautigan gained international acclaim with his novel Trout Fishing In America, he’d been writing for years, eager for recognition. But when it finally did arrive, it was a rocky relationship. Brautigan sometimes enjoyed the perks (like the long line of women who threw themselves at him) but more often despised the critical judgment of his work and the lack of privacy (like when a hopeful biographer showed up on his front door and let himself in). “When fame puts its ugly crowbar under your rock,” is how Richard framed it. Brautigan eventually bought a ranch in Montana and a house in Bolinas, north of San Francisco, to find isolation.
What Abbott brings is the perspective of a personal friend and fellow writer. He details afternoons wandering the North Beach neighborhood with Brautigan.
In those days going around with Brautigan was like traveling inside one of his novels. With friends Richard talked just as he wrote. Outrageous metaphors and looney tune takes were commonplace; one-liners, bizarre fantasies, and lightning asides darted out of him one after another. He loved to improvise verbal games but he would do them deadpan, pretending to have no humor at all.
At the same time, Abbott gives us a look at the dynamic tension of Brautigan’s prose—a crafted simplicity pulling against leaps of fantastic metaphor and fantasy, also with a deadpan delivery.
Another Brautigan signature is his self-reflexiveness. The first chapter of Trout Fishing In America is about the cover of the book itself. “The ultimate reality of any text, for Brautigan, is the moment it is written.” In other words, the “present” was the moment in which Brautigan sat at his typewriter. Abbott continues:
Brautigan’s own kind of kind of Heisenbergian Uncertainty Principle functions in his work. Style measures content, and since that physical process of writing alters the product, Brautigan asks the question, Well, why not record that, too? While Brautigan sees that his imagination can make history come alive, he simultaneously mourns that imagination will also inevitably warp events in the telling.
In many ways, Brautigan’s life and fiction were inseparable. He adored his afternoons of improvisation, wandering the streets of San Francisco. He thought of them as temporary works of art in themselves, with solvent beauty that “disappeared in their becoming.” Likewise, Abbot says that the tragedy of Brautigan’s life was that he “defined everything, including himself, in terms of an ahistorical imagination. Brautigan wanted to round up life in one mercurial, moving, magic vision, but he realized that he could produce only ‘paper phantoms,’ his term for books.”
At his best, Richard was a generous, charming, witty and endlessly imaginative drinking companion. At his worst, he could be a dark, self-important, bitter old crank. He cycled through relationships with women as if he was searching for a fix to something in himself. His eccentric behavior enchanted and alienated friends. In the rampant drug use of the counter-culture, Brautigan stuck with alcohol, but he over-indulged and it certainly contributed to his own unhinging.
Brautigan’s suicide was a sensationalized story that, in the commercialism of the 1980s, seemed to represent the ugly, burned-out reality of the hippie movement. But Richard’s connection to the hippies was more a chronological coincidence than a genuine tie. As a writer and artist, Brautigan was something all his own. In writing this book, Abbott wanted to give another side of the story, something to counter the media narrative. Something more personal, more nuanced, more real.
At the time of Downstream’s writing (pub. 1989), Abbott notes that “Brautigan’s work is treated as only an object for nostalgia…When roll-calls of fictional innovators are published in critical articles, his name has been dropped from the list of Ishmael Reed, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robart Coover and others.” But a quick internet search, a series of posthumous publications and reprintings in the 1990s and a new (April 2012) comprehensive biography by William Hjortsberg all evidence a bit of a resurgence (definitely not a slow slide into obscurity). For that I am grateful. I first encountered Brautigan’s work in 1999, but he has since become one of my favorite writers. This might seem counter to Brautigan’s notion of his works as fleeting “paper phantoms.” Thankfully, they continue to haunt.