On October 25, 1984, the badly decomposed body of the novelist, poet and short story writer Richard Brautigan was found in the living room of his house in Bolinas, California.
By then Brautigan had become almost completely reclusive and police speculated that he had been dead for at least a month. The cause of death was suicide by gunshot from a .44 Magnum pistol.
Brautigan had published three poetry collections in the late 1950s, but his fame came from the bittersweetly humorous and dreamlike novels he began publishing in the 1960s while he lived in San Fransisco and flourished amid the counter-culture scene.
A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), his first published novel didn’t fare well at the time but his second novel (actually written earlier and more of a series of inter-related short stories in my opinion) Trout Fishing in America (1967) caught on.
It was so popular that a number of hippy communes at the time renamed themselves after it. He also published four more books of poetry in the sixties.
He published five more novels in the 1970s, including The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971) and solidified his reputation as a cult writer. The Abortion is about a recluse who runs The Library for Unpublished Works where anyone could bring in an unpublished manuscript to be lovingly cared for. It highlights Brautigan’s almost sentimental love of words and writing.
Critic Tony Tanner described Brautigan’s style: “He retains the illusion of orthodox syntax and grammar, but the sentences are continually turning off into unexpectedness in ways which pleasantly dissolve our habitual semantic expectations. At the same time, Brautigan is constantly, cunningly, deviating into sense; there is enough linguistic coherence left for us to experience the book as communication, and enough linguistic sport for Brautigan to demonstrate his own freedom from control.”
He even “published” a work called Plant This Book, with poems written on the backs of seed packages, a very hippy high-concept project.
Brautigan himself had had a hard upbringing, being physically abused by some of his alcoholic mother’s male partners.
When the boom years for his books died with the advent of the more materialistic 1980s Brautigan fell on hard times both financially and psychologically, giving in to paranoia and alcoholism.
At the time of his death he was living on welfare. “When the 1960’s ended, he was the baby thrown out with the bath water,” said his friend, novelist Thomas McGuane.
I first started reading Brautigan in high school at about the time I first encountered Kurt Vonnegut. I loved them both for their humorous wordplay and fantastical plots. I continued to read and re-read them for the rest of my life.
Brautigan has had periodic resurgences of popularity and his novels are still in print. It’s a shame he didn’t get to write more and see a new generation of fans emerge.