There are only two authors whose complete published works I’ve read: Samuel Beckett and Richard Brautigan. By ‘complete’ I mean of course those that are still generally available. And I would also have to exclude works of non-fiction. Those scraps aside I’ve read everything else and certainly every major work, in most cases several times. And most of what I’ve read I own, although, strictly speaking, my wife does own some of the Brautigan which if she dies before me I fully expect to inherit. All I’m saying is that I’ve got dibs on it.
I first came across Richard Brautigan in Saltcoats about twenty years ago in an Ayrshire Cancer Support charity shop on Chapelwell Street. I mean his books and not the man since he’d been dead about seven years by then. I can’t be more precise and a greater degree of precision wouldn’t alter the basic facts. I found four novels by him and purchased three of them purely because I liked the covers, all of which featured a photo of him; I’d never heard of him before that day. The three I bought were In Watermelon Sugar, Willard and his Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery and The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. They were the Picador editions from the seventies. Since then I’ve bought A Confederate General From Big Sur in that edition but I don’t think that was the fourth book. I remember it as Trout Fishing in America but who’s to say I’m remembering correctly? I probably paid less than a pound for all three. Why I didn’t take all four I can’t tell you. Perhaps the cover to the fourth paperback was damaged. Suffice to say whatever book it was I’ve now acquired a copy and read it.
The fourth-to-last book I read by him was So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away. After that I read my own copy of An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey and then Steve Kane lent me his omnibus edition which contained Dreaming of Babylon: A Detective Novel 1942 and The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Romance along with a third novel I’d already read. Those were the last two books I needed to read to be able to say that I’d read all his novels, short stories and poems taking into account the provisos mentioned in my second paragraph.
I’ve just reread So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away. I expect I’ll read it again before I die. In fact I expect I’ll reread all his books before I die (unless I die sooner than expected) although I might not reread Dreaming of Babylon and The Hawkline Monster because I’d have to locate fresh copies to do so. But you never know. It kinda bothers me that I don’t own all his novels.
When So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away was published it was not exactly an occasion. It sold but only a modest 15,000 copies. This is what the review in Playboy opens with:
If you came of age in the late Sixties, Richard Brautigan was one of the staples in your pop-culture diet. He was the good angel on your shoulder, the counterculture's answer to Walter Cronkite. Today, we tend to greet the arrival of a new Brautigan work the way we greet the announcement of our 11th class reunion: nothing historic but nice enough if you can fit it into your calendar.
If I were to compare Brautigan’s book to a musical work I’d probably go with Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, a late-flowering essay suffused with a deep yearning, penetrative soulfulness and, in the finale, infectious high spirits – that’s the symphony I’m talking about here not the novel. Most of Rachmaninoff’s popular works had been written thirty years earlier and his Third Symphony is never going to be played more than his Second and Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini of even his Prelude in C♯ Minor and that is a shame. I came to it late having listened to just about everything else he had composed and after a long break. And I suspect that will be the case for those who discover So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away eventually. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing.
It is unmistakably Brautigan. And I’ll be honest a little Brautigan can go a long way; he is like Beckett in that respect. His style is laconic, repetitive and expressed in the simple, straightforward language that poor people living on Welfare in any one of a thousand small towns will use happily turning nouns into verbs whenever it suits their needs. The setting in this book is a succession of dreary towns in Oregon but you could shift the action to Louisiana or South Dakota and not bat an eye.
The story is told by a forty-four-year-old man writing on 1st August 1979 looking back to when he was a boy. Most of the story concentrates on when he was twelve and thirteen but he does jump about a bit in fact the narrator’s quirky perception of time is one of the delights to this piece. The story itself – a fictionalised memoir – is quite straightforward but he tells the story as he remembers things and this necessitates leaps in time and breaks in the narrative. What he’s really doing is putting off saying what he has to say because no amount of context is going to change it or the effect what is going to happen / has happened has had / will have on his life. If you can picture a forty-four-year-old man looking back to when he was a twelve-year-old who’s looking forward to when he’ll be thirteen you’ve probably got the right kind of mindset for this book. Of course we remember things differently as we age. Here’s a good example:
[L]ooking back down upon that long-ago past now from the 1979 mountainside of this August afternoon, I think the ‘old man’ was younger than I am now. He was maybe thirty-five, nine years younger than I am now. To the marshy level of my human experience back then, he seemed to be very old, probably the equivalent of an eighty-year-old man to me now.
Also, drinking beer all the time didn’t make him look any younger.
It’s easy to read that, get the gist and pass on by but there is real poetry here; he’s describing life as a hill that we have to climb.
The ‘old man’ is just one of a number of characters that our narrator encounters between 1940 and 1948 but mostly in 1947. His days don’t amount to much, fishing in a manmade lake (created when they were building the overpass), cycling around on a bike so filthy you could no longer tell what colour it used to be or surveying his kingdom looking for beer bottles or worms – a penny apiece deposit for the bottles and the same per worm from the man who ostensibly ran the filling station but who seemed more interesting in procuring worms to sell to the fishermen who had to pass his premises on the way to fish than selling petrol. The area is surrounded by sawmills and agricultural land which the boy enjoys investigating including two “domesticated orchards that had been totally ignored, abandoned for reasons unknown and had reverted to the wild.” In one of these the apples are mostly rotten and the local boys like to go there and shoot them with their .22 rifles.
Needless to say, America has changed from those days of 1948. If you saw a twelve-year-old kid with a rifle standing in front of a filling station today, you’d call out the National Guard and probably with good provocation. The kid would be standing in the middle of a pile of bodies.
Back in the summer of 1947 he doesn’t have any bullets for his rifle. He doesn’t even have his rifle yet. He acquires it a few months later from a fourteen-year-old boy “with a reputation as a well-known masturbator” whose parents had decided he could no longer sleep in the house:
From now on … he was to sleep out in the garage. He could take his meals in the house and bathe and go to the toilet there, but those were the only times they wanted him in there.
To make sure that he got the point of their dislike, they did not provide him with a bed when they exiled him to the garage. That’s where I come in and the gun comes in.
The boy had a .22 calibre pump rifle. I had for some unknown reason, I can’t remember why, a mattress.
Following a brief discussion on how inclement a winter it was expected to be, the exchange is made. It is the first step in a sequence that climaxes on 17th February 1948. The next link in the chain takes place on 16th February 1948, a rainy Friday afternoon as it happens. In fact our narrator interrupts the story he’s been telling us up to this point (he’s drifted back to 1947 and is awaiting the imminent arrival at his pond of an overweight husband and wife team of fishers) and the action literally freezes in his head; he can’t not tell his tale any more. No, suddenly his mind has rewound the approximately “3,983,421 hours of film” in his head and he finds himself on a street faced with a decision:
I had a friend who liked to shoot apples … but he didn’t like to go to the junkyard to practice the little decisions of destruction that a .22 rifle can provide a kid. But I couldn’t shoot anything one way or another if I didn’t have any bullets.
Some bullets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . or a burger, a burger . . . . . . . . . . . . or some bullets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . paddled back and forth in my brain like a Ping-Pong ball.
The door to the restaurant opened just then and a satisfied customer came out with a burger-pleased smile on his face. The open door also allowed a gust of burger perfume to escape right into my nose.
I took a step toward the restaurant but then I heard in my mind the sound of a .22 bullet turning a rotten apple into instant rotten apple juice. It was a lot more dramatic than eating a burger. The door to the restaurant closed escorting the smell of cooking hamburgers back inside like an usher.
What will I do?
Needless to say he makes the wrong decision. And while his story remains frozen – the story of the pond, the old men and the couple who brought their whole living room in a truck to keep them company while they fished – he finally lets us know what happened in that orchard in 1948 before returning to 1979 where he has been sitting with his “ear pressed up against the past as if it was the wall of a house that no longer exists” and where he finally gets to finish reliving the previous memory and let it run on to its end. Is it the twelve-year-old boy that the couple find waiting for them or does he house the consciousness of the man full of regret and remorse that he will become? I couldn’t say. The couple set up their living room beside the lake, begin to cook their meal and the next thing they notice he’s vanished:
‘I don’t see him anywhere.’
‘I guess he’s gone.’
‘Maybe he went home.’
Who am I to say where ‘home’ was, the past or the present? Of course they’re all past now.
These are actually the words Brautigan’s daughter, Ianthe, chose to end her memoir of her father with. “The prevailing sentiment when he died,” she wrote, “was that he was outdated and broken.” There is no argument about the latter – he shot himself with a .44 in 1984 – but he was only outdated in that the society that he found himself in was starting to move away from the world of his novels – this was the world of their parents and they’d already rejected most of their values anyway and so how could they possibly connect with the books or music or films they cherished? Now thirty-odd years on we’re more secure in the society we have carved out for ourselves and are open to reassess the works of the seventies. Okay, maybe prog rock is never going to come back in a big way but there will be people out there who buy In The Court Of The Crimson King purely for the mad cover art and then go, “Wow!” when they finally think to play the ruddy thing. I think I had those Brautigan books for about three years before I actually read them, do you know that?
I was twelve in 1971. T-Rex and Slade had their first number ones. I didn’t have a .22 rifle and, if memory serves me right, my bike was blue. I probably did fire my first air pistol back then; before that it was water pistols and spud guns. Looking back on the history of that time it wasn’t that grand. The UK’s economy was in decline: there were constant strikes, the three-day week, electricity blackouts. My dad was never out of work but times were tough. And yet I do look back on that time and regret its passing because there was a lot lost back then that I don’t see us getting back. What I’m saying is that I can relate to what Brautigan’s getting at in this book. It’s not just about a mistake that a boy makes that affects the rest of his life because we all have those. We know from page one pretty much what’s going to happen. Brautigan drip feeds us details but if you’ve read the blurb on the back you’ll already know.
The book really isn’t in chapters but it is in sections and each one is divided by this:
So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away
Dust . . . American . . . Dust
The boy first realises his own mortality when he’s five and witnesses a child-sized casket being carried from the mortuary his family then lived over and this morbid preoccupation stays with him for several years. Later he learns about a boy who is killed in a car accident which both his parents survive. And a little while after this one of three daughters, a girl of about eight dies. He never sees her die – she dies of pneumonia – but the boy witnesses loss through the disappearance of toys from once-littered lawns and porches:
Her living sisters were afraid of their own toys because they didn’t know what toys had belonged to the dead girl and they didn’t want to play with the toys of somebody who was dead. They had played so freely and intensely that they could not separate the toys of the living from the toys of the dead.
These events foreshadow the climactic event of the boy’s life, the death that marks the end of his childhood. Symbolically, Brautigan is also looking back on what he sees as America's age of innocence. The adults that he talks about – with perhaps the singular example of his mother and her obsessive fear of gas leaks – may have been impoverished but nevertheless they seemed content with simple pleasures:
In those days people made their own imagination, like homecooking. Now our dreams are just any street in America lined with franchise restaurants, I sometimes think that even our digestion is a soundtrack recorded by Hollywood by the television networks.
I can draw an English comparison: Pooh Bear. Yes, I know it’s a children’s story but it’s set in a very real childhood. There’s a scene in Brautigan’s book where the guy who looks after the filling station asks one of the boys if he wants a bottle of pop:
‘No, I’ll wait for summer,’ David said.
‘OK,’ the old man said. ‘Suit yourself.’
He went back into the filling station to wait for summer.
Is that really any different to Pooh:
Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.
Although he never confirmed or denied the connection, the story was thought to be autobiographical, built on an incident that happened to Brautigan at age thirteen.
Actually, the story was created from two separate incidents. The first involved Brautigan, his best friend Pete Webster, and Pete's brother, Danny. The three were duck hunting in the Fern Ridge wetlands, near Eugene, Oregon. Brautigan was separated from the other two. Brautigan fired at a duck and a pellet from his shot struck Danny in the ear, injuring him only slightly. About the same time, Donald Husband, 14-year-old son of a prominent Eugene attorney, was shot and killed in a hunting accident off Bailey Hill Road. Brautigan's incident and that involving Husband became one in this novel (Bob Keefer and Quail Dawning 2H).
If you’ve never read Brautigan, do. If you have but you’ve never quite got round to this one, do. If you’ve already read it and it’s been a while, do read it again. No one writes like him. And if you’ve never heard Rachmaninoff’s Third well that’s worth a listen to too.
 Ianthe Brautigan, You Can’t Catch Death – A Daughter’s Memoir, p.viii