Recalling Richard Brautigan, through a daughter's pain

On Books

April 23, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Richard Brautigan achieved an immense stir in 1967 at the age of 32 with the novel "Trout Fishing in America." In the next 17 years -- until his death by suicide in 1984 -- he produced 11 novels, lots of short stories and nine volumes of poetry.

For many people in the late '60s, he was a literary darling, a sort of angelic voice of what was soon to be categorized as the counterculture. "Trout Fishing" had far less to do with trout fishing than it did with the joys of early hippiness. It has sold millions of copies, in lots of languages.

I loved it at the time, more for the humane freshness and energy of its voice than for anything like Deeper Truth. I recommend it now as an enchanting song of nostalgia for the sweet decencies that were the best qualities of the 1960s' tumults.

Nothing else he wrote reached the level of mass-cultlike popularity of his first book, but as long as he lived -- and long after -- he reigned as a guru, an exemplar of defiantly unconventional life.

Richard Brautigan's work was extruded through the consciousness of a tortured, deeply conflicted man. Born and raised in poverty in Oregon, he was committed as an adolescent to Salem Mental Hospital -- apparently for questionable reasons -- and subjected to repeated electroshock. He fled to California.

There were drugs everywhere in his life, but Brautigan did not use cocaine or marijuana or the others. Alcohol was his jones. He was a deeply depressed binge alcoholic who was fascinated by others' suicides -- and in brief spurts flirted with joy.

He never genuinely confronted the ravages that booze was inflicting on him. His work and his personal life deteriorated -- swiftly in his last few years -- into pathetically self-indulgent incoherence.

He seemed incapable of sustained intimacy and drifted in and out of relationships with women. From a difficult early marriage came one child, a daughter named Ianthe, born in 1960. Though in his final years he turned from her, their relationship may have been the closest thing to genuine love he ever experienced.

And now, Ianthe Brautigan, 40 years old and a devoted parent, has come forward with a book about her father -- or, more truly, about her own long agonies and too-occasional joys. It is "You Can't Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir" (St. Martin's, 213 pages, $23.95).

It is a sweetly beautiful, loving book. Its substance is a punctilious, almost obsessive tracking of every recallable sight and sound and contact with her father, who had separated from her mother when Ianthe was a small, small child. She demonstrates an extraordinary capacity to write clean, fresh prose. She has the courage of candid self-disclosure and the discipline of being crisp.

Brautigan visited his daughter and took her on jaunts throughout early childhood. After his success, he had a Montana ranch where she spent summers, and more. But, she writes, "At the age of twenty I was reduced to begging him over the phone in the middle of the night not to kill himself. 'Please, Daddy, please Daddy,' I cried. He hung up the phone."

She was clearly awed and enraptured by him from earliest awareness till the day he died -- and after. This is more than mere biography: It is a testament. It is an act of worship, of spiritual witness. It offers flashes of immense courage of character and great beauty -- such as this:

"Sometimes the love I have for my father overtakes my whole being, and I want to leap into the air and grab onto whatever color is there to express how my heart feels. At times like those I envision myself as a sort of sky acrobat, swinging from handhold to handhold in the blue atmosphere. This love is not weak and doesn't fail and remains forever mine."

The entire book is driven by the energy of Brautigan's near-genius, his essential sweetness and his daughter's love for him. Against that runs the incessant counterpoint of Brautigan's drinking -- the curse of it.

Booze is a killer, a seducer -- the one thing he could not do without. He could reject everything else: faithful friends, cosmopolitan admirers, endless girlfriends, attentive glitterati, and even the daughter who adored him.

A lot of the book is in short, one-page, even one-paragraph, vignettes. They are sharp, brightly impressionistic. A lot of them sound like good Richard Brautigan. In one of them, called "Tragedy With Two Coats," she explains the book's title: "I think that suicide is contagious, and if I were to give them [her father's coats] to a grandchild the child might be infected. I know rationally that I can't catch death, but there is still a part of me that feels that somehow my father's blood covers everything."

In another passage, she writes of her mother soothing her: " 'You can't catch death,' she whispered in my ear. 'You can't catch death.' " But I was left far from sure Ianthe believed that.

St. Martin's is simultaneously publishing a posthumous work by Brautigan: "An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey" (St. Martin's, 110 pages, $17.95). As might be expected of a book written in 1982 and not published till 2000, it is a less than substantial work. Brautigan was falling fast into self-destruction, and the book is self-indulgent and unfocused.

His distress may best have been expressed in this passage: "Probably the closest things to perfection are the huge, absolutely empty holes that astronomers have recently discovered in space. If there's nothing there, how can anything go wrong?"

For Richard Brautigan, everything went wrong. He was caught in a web of self-destruction. Blessed with greater courage, Ianthe Brautigan has fought through the pain. Her battle has yielded a book that would have made her father very, very proud.

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