After he died, the friends of Richard Brautigan gathered at Enrico’s, Richard’s favorite San Francisco bar, to drink his spirit to rest. Some famous people were there, movie people, poets and writers, some old hippies from times gone by, one of Richard’s ex-wives, several girlfriends and a double handful of the alcoholic idealists whom Richard collected like spare change. The bartender wore an electric tie. They talked about why Richard died, and what killed him. Some blamed Ernest Hemingway, but most of them spoke of alcohol, women — and ghosts.
Now Richard was his own ghost, and he walked through Enrico’s with a glass in his hand, a little drunk already, collecting memories of himself. He was always vain that way: he could never pass a mirror or even a shop window without casting a glance at his reflection. And he was morbid as well. How could he miss his own wake? It was a party he had planned for himself, a bon voyage for a man who had never fit comfortably into life. But it was also, Richard’s ghost remembered sourly, a party five weeks late in starting. When his body lay rotting on the floor of his house in Bolinas, where were his friends then?
Richard’s ghost eavesdropped on the obligatory anecdotes, the little tales his friends traded of Richard’s fame, and his fall from fame. They talked about his generosity but also about his legendary stinginess. Some knew him as a wealthy man, others as a near beggar. Some spoke of his love of life, others remembered his longing for death. They were trying to piece his life together, yet their stories were like the shards of two different pots: How could they have contained a single man? Why did he fail? Why did he kill himself? What was his problem with love? Questions floated about, unasked and unanswered. Richard’s ghost turned away and went looking for himself at the bar.
One of the tricks of death is holding on to time. Richard slipped across the room and found himself at his usual spot beside the cigarette machine, though he was not the red-faced, middle-aged drunk with the dirty mustache that he had grown used to seeing in the mirror, but a tall, blond, clean-shaven young man, abjectly shy and full of secrets. Richard must have dropped several decades, for it was himself at twenty-one, wearing jeans and a torn T-shirt and cheap, large eyeglasses. He stuck his hands in his pockets. Not a dime.
Oh, yes, he remembered what it was like to be broke and alone. But he had forgotten, somehow, what it was like to be young, unknown, uncorrupted and full of promise. This was a moment of life he would like to relive. He walked past the crowd of mourners, through the open glass doors of Enrico’s.
Outside it was 1956.
It was a historic moment in America, but the country was not yet aware of it. Every Friday evening, at the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s, you could find Robert Creeley, Michael McClure, Philip Whelan, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan — a fleet of ambitions awaiting the tide of fame. Lenny Bruce was appearing at the hungry i. Jack Kerouac had hopped a Southern Pacific freight to San Francisco, with the unpublished manuscript for On the Road in his rucksack. Allen Ginsberg was a baggage handler at the Greyhound bus station, but he had already read Howl in public. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was running a bookstore at Broadway and Columbus called City Lights, a mecca for young writers and poets. Literature had found an angry, new American voice — a wild, jazzy sound of sex and neurosis — but it had not yet been heard beyond the coffeehouses of North Beach. They called themselves the Beat Generation.
Richard Brautigan lurked in the background, a little star struck, too shy to read his own poetry. He had a queer sense of humor and a benign feeling toward humanity that was quite out of fashion with the indignant Beats. Ginsberg called him Bunthorne, the winsome poet of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience, who believed that
You must lie upon the daisies and
discourse in novel phrases of your
complicated state of mind, The meaning doesn’t matter if
it’s only idle chatter of a
Richard had a job delivering telegrams in the financial district. Sometimes he passed a girl with long brown hair, dressed in black — the emblem of the Beats — named Ginny Alder. She would say hello as he whizzed past on his Western Union bicycle, but he never responded. Because he was so intensely blond, she decided he was Austrian and couldn’t speak English.
One day, as he walked down Broadway, Richard passed another poet named Ron Loewinsohn. Ron was eighteen then, Richard twenty-one. Richard had seen Loewinsohn around and wanted to meet him, so he handed him a poem. It read:
Cats walk on little cat feet
and fogs walk on little fog feet,
Because Ron laughed, they became friends. They were both broke. They slept in parked cars, and on cold days they met in a laundromat to talk.
They were sitting in the laundromat when Ginny walked in. That night she took Richard home with her. She didn’t know he was a virgin.
Time moves fluidly in death: Richard’s ghost swam in memories of marriages and love affairs. Here was Ginny at his wake, with their daughter, Ianthe. Some of the mourners looked at Ianthe and drew a breath, for she reminded them of the young Richard, but dark and female, quite tall, quite beautiful, with Richard’s laugh, so that she was herself a kind of Richard ghost.
Richard’s ghost saw himself standing beside Ginny now. He was six feet four, still baby-faced, although he had grown an impressively bushy mustache to cultivate an imagined resemblance to Mark Twain.
“It was 1961,” Ginny said. “That was the year we discovered Schedule C of the federal income tax — the self-employment form. We got back $350 and bought a ten-year-old Plymouth station wagon, which we loaded down with books — Rimbaud, Thoreau, Whitman — a Coleman stove and a Coleman lantern, a tent, sleeping bags, diapers, and we took off for the Snake River country of Idaho.
“We’d camp beside the streams, and Richard would get out his old portable typewriter and a card table. That’s when he began to write Trout Fishing in America. He had to learn to write prose; everything he wrote turned into a poem.”
This should have been the happiest moment in his life. He was in love; he was working well. What he was working on the streamsides of Idaho was one of the most original, playful works of the American language, a work of eccentric brilliance — a book that broke apart ordinary notions of fiction and experience, then reconstructed both with such whimsy, and such startling metaphors, that critics would not know if it was genius or insanity.
As a child when did I first hear about trout fishing in America? From whom? I guess it was a stepfather of mine.
Summer of 1942.
The old drunk told me about trout fishing. When he could talk, he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious and intelligent metal.
Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when he told me about trout fishing.
I’d like to get it right.
Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat.
Imagine Pittsburgh. A steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings, trains and tunnels.
The Andrew Carnegie of Trout!
The Reply of Trout Fishing in America:
I remember with particular amusement, people with three-cornered hats fishing in the dawn.
His friends remembered when Richard became famous. It was the year the hippies came to San Francisco. Richard had published one novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, but it had sold miserably — 743 copies — and his publisher, Grove Press, had dropped its option on Trout Fishing in America. Donald Allen was the West Coast representative of Grove and the editor of the Evergreen Review, which had introduced the Beat Generation. Allen had a small nonprofit press called the Four Seasons Foundation, and he decided to publish the book himself. Allen sold 29,000 copies of the book before Delacorte bought it. Eventually, 2 million copies were sold.
It was the kind of book that captured the spirit and sound of a generation. Soon there was a commune and an underground newspaper and even a school named after Trout Fishing in America. His short stories and poems appeared regularly in Rolling Stone, often beneath a photograph of him in his broad-brimmed hat. His face became a hippie icon. “For three or four years, he was like George Harrison walking down Haight Street,” remembered Don Carpenter, a novelist and scriptwriter and a longtime friend of Richard’s. His image infuriated what Richard called the East Coast literary mafia.
The old Beats looked at Richard with envy and surprise. The Beats were out of fashion, and Bunthorne was all the rage — and he was rich, too, thunderously rich by their standards. Ferlinghetti had been the first to publish parts of Trout Fishing in his City Lights Journal, but like most Beats, he had never taken Richard’s writing seriously. “As an editor, I always kept waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer,” he says now. “I never could stand cute writing. He could never be an important writer — like Hemingway — with that childish voice of his. Essentially he had a naif style, a style based on a childlike perception of the world. The hippie cult was itself a childlike movement. I guess Richard was all the novelist the hippies needed. It was a nonliterate age.”
But it was an extraordinary time in every other respect. Cultural forms were exploding. in the face of furious experimentation — with drugs, art, sex, music, religion, social roles. Richard’s attitude toward all this, however, was ambivalent. He was widely credited with being the voice of the Summer of Love, but in fact he was contemptuous of most hippies, whom he saw as freeloaders and dizzy peaceniks. He had a horror of narcotics that seemed fanciful to his friends — everybody used dope in those days except Richard.
His passions were basketball, the Civil War, Frank Lloyd Wright, Southern women writers, soap operas, the National Enquirer, chicken-fried steak and talking on the telephone. Wherever he was in the world, he would phone up his friends and talk for hours, sometimes reading them an entire book manuscript on a transpacific call. Time meant nothing to him, for he was a hopeless insomniac. Most of his friends dreaded it when Richard started reading his latest work to them, because he could not abide criticism of any sort. He had a dead ear for music. Ianthe remembered that he used to buy record albums because of the girls on the covers. He loved to take walks, but he loathed exercise in any other form.
The fact that Richard couldn’t drive allowed him to build up an entourage of chauffeurs wherever he went. For many of them, it was an honor, and they didn’t mind that it was calculated dependency on Richard’s part.
Richard had wild notions about money. Although he was absurdly parsimonious, sometimes demanding a receipt for a purchase of bubblegum, he was also a heavy tipper, handing out fifty-dollar tips for five-dollar cab fares. He liked to give the impression that money was meaningless to him. The floor of his apartment was littered with spare change, like the bottom of a wishing well, and he always kept his bills wadded up in his pants pockets, but he knew to the dime how much money he was carrying. He was famously openhanded, but when he had to borrow money from his friends, he was slow paying it back. He often tried to pay them in “trout money,” little scraps of paper on which he had scrawled an image of a fish. He had the idea that they would be wildly valuable, because they had been signed by Richard Brautigan. At least, that’s what he told his creditors.
Christmas was a special problem for him. His friends were horrified that Richard liked to spend his Christmases in porno theaters. They decided it must have something to do with his childhood. Richard was mum on the subject. Ron Loewinsohn remembered when Richard came to read at Harvard. Yes, Richard was famous, a spokesman for his generation, but he was also a kind of bumpkin, half-educated, untraveled, a true provincial. He had never been East. He wanted to be taken seriously, of course, but he was suspicious and a little afraid of academicians — including Ron, who was in graduate school at Harvard when Richard arrived. Life magazine came along, and there was even a parade down Massachusetts Avenue, with a giant papier-mâché trout in the lead. After the reading, Ron and Richard went to Walden Pond, and as they walked along the littered banks of Thoreau’s wilderness, the photographer walked backward in front of them, snapping away. It was strange to be linked in this media ceremony to the two American writers who had most influenced Richard — Thoreau, who was like Richard at least in his solitariness and his love of nature, and Hemingway, who had also received the star treatment from Life.
In 1970, when Richard was still tremendously popular, he confided to Margot Patterson Doss, the San Francisco Chronicle Columnist, that he had never had a birthday party. She let him plan one for himself at her house. He decorated the house with fish drawings — “shoals of them,” Margot said — and when she asked whom he wanted to cater the affair, he picked Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everyone came — Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Phil Whalen, many of the finest poets of the era — all honoring Richard. When it came time to blow out the candles on the cake, Richard refused. “This is the Age of Aquarius,” he said. “The candles will blow themselves out.” He was thirty-five.
A lot of Richard’s male friends blamed women for his death, but they admitted that he was impossible to live with. “Richard’s desire to be loved, when he expressed it, was so overpowering, it invariably drove his women away,” said Don Carpenter. “I used to say to him, ‘Richard, you can have an affair for as long as you like, but if you move in with a woman, it’ll be over in two weeks.’ “
“Richard was pretty promiscuous,” Ron Loewinsohn agreed, “and he paid for it, with divorces and all the usual diseases. He seemed to need casual affairs at the same time that he wanted reasonably healthy relationships.”
Ginny was the first to go. She took Ianthe, and Richard moved to a dark, little, apartment on Geary Street, near Sears, Roebuck — the windiest, bleakest part of San Francisco. Long after he could have lived anywhere he wanted to, he stayed in that cluttered apartment, a kind of museum to himself, papering the walls with posters for his readings and keeping a display of his books on a stepladder in the hallway. On the floor of the living room was an old Japanese machine gun mounted on a tripod. He developed fussy bachelor habits and often neglected to bathe.
He had a difficult habit of testing his friends, but he was even more demanding of his lovers. He pushed them away, he was abominable, he wanted unconditional love and forgiveness. They put up with it, some of them, because he genuinely valued a woman’s intelligence. “That appealed to women,” one of his girlfriends recalled. “It was a trade-off. The kink thing just went with it.”
It became a liability to be seen with Richard. Everybody had heard about his penchant for bondage. Girls in bars would warn each other about it in the restrooms. Margot Patterson Doss reproached Richard after three of his girlfriends complained to her. “Richard got a hurt tone in his voice and said, ‘But, Margot, I always tie them loosely, and I never hurt them.’ ”
Although he hated feminists, Richard understood women’s frailties and fears. He himself was frail and fearful. “I feel closer to women,” he once admitted. “Often I can ask them questions it would be harder for me to ask a man. Women are more likely to humor my strange ideas.” After two in the morning, when the bars closed in San Francisco, Richard would go looking for female consolation. He had no compunction about calling people in the middle of the night or appearing on their doorstep, a stuttering drunk, wanting another drink. It was another dependency he cultivated: the nightcap.
One person who was usually awake and available to talk was his friend Marcia Clay, an extraordinary and disconcertingly beautiful artist who painted at night. “We’d stay up till five in the morning, and then Richard would crash,” Marcia recalled. “He liked to take charge. I was born with cerebral palsy, and Richard was very sympathetic to that. He saw this hand was cramped. I never wanted to call attention to it; I kept all my watches and rings on my right hand. One day he took both my hands very ceremoniously and said, “This right hand is very beautiful; it doesn’t need any jewelry. Put your jewelry on your other hand; it needs all the help it can get.’ “
Richard was always spontaneous, and Marcia loved that. Once they were having dinner at a restaurant, and she got a morsel of food caught in her teeth. Richard leaped up and disappeared, and when he came back into the restaurant, he gave her a toothbrush. Another time they were walking down one of the steepest hills in San Francisco, on Kearny Street, right above Enrico’s. Richard told her to climb onto his shoulders, and she did, and he went clambering down the hill — “So alive, so intense, so strange, so bright, and such a deviant.”
I was one of the people who hung around City Lights,” remembers Thomas McGuane, who is now a novelist of considerable reputation but was then, in 1968, one of the million unknown writers who passed through Ferlinghetti’s bookstore. “I bought Trout Fishing and was just knocked out by it.”
Tom was living in Bolinas, which was at that point just a small Portuguese fishing village in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Russell Chatham, a painter, writer and world-class fisherman, was also living in Bolinas. Soon William Hjortsberg, whom everyone called Gatz, arrived, with a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing. “We weren’t a wave, we were unpublished writers,” Tom McGuane says. But the wave did hit soon after that.
Bolinas became the new center — at one time there were twenty-six published poets and two Guggenheim Fellows in this little village, which made for quite a rarefied atmosphere. It was the sort of place, Richard complained, where people named their dogs Renaissance and Steppenwolf. He called it a “hippie Brigadoon.”
Tom McGuane first met Richard at a party. All the usual crowd was there — “all vastly drunk,” as Tom remembers it — when Richard appeared. He struck Tom as “a skinny hippie with beautiful manners. He had two or three Japanese affectations. If you complimented him, he would close his hands in front of him and bow. At that time, he was quickly becoming a superstar.”
Richard was renting a house in Bolinas and writing his third novel, In Watermelon Sugar, about a little community of artisans called iDEATH, where the sun shines a different color every day. It was a parable of an idealized Bolinas, a perfect community of peers. But whatever Bolinas might have been in Richard’s mind, it was becoming something else in reality. There was a hostile attitude toward the world beyond Marin County. Road signs directing traffic to Bolinas were routinely torn down. Although the flight to the country had begun as an exodus from the heavy drug scene that had taken over the city, Bolinas became a repository for Sixties-like dope taking and dope attitudes and dope paranoia.
Despite his own fear of drugs, Richard bought a house in Bolinas, upsetting many people in the community when he dispossessed poets David and Tina Meltzer and their children. People remember the house then as being cheerful, but after Richard moved in, he seemed to bring his own gloom. “I stayed in his house for a while,” McGuane remembers. “After a day or two, I really wanted to rocket out of there.” It was a dark house, deeply shaded by redwood trees, and haunted, at least according to Richard, who always conjured with the world of spirits.
Richard lived in Bolinas intermittently. He had become an alcoholic, and McGuane recognized the alcoholic’s tendency to seek geographical solutions. Richard divided his time between California, Japan and Livingston, Montana, where McGuane, Hjortsberg and Chatham had retreated, all of them in a kind of flight from the precious intellects who governed Bolinas.
Tom first invited Richard to visit him in 1973. Richard rented a tourist cabin in Livingston and stayed there to write The Hawkline Monster, which he called “a gothic western.” It was during a period when Richard had vowed to write a novel a year, each representing a different genre. He liked Montana immediately, and he admired Tom. He bought a forty-acre ranch on Pine Creek, a lovely little stream that emptied into the Yellowstone River at the base of the property, near where Hemingway had hunted and fished — and written.
Livingston became a colony of rough-cut, highly competitive male artists. At the center of this scene were Tom and Becky McGuane, who were both sexual magnets: Tom was big and tough, a bar fighter, yet he was also insouciant in a way that drew both men and women to him; and Becky was blond, extremely petite but busty, with a native insight into men. People wanted to be around them. Sam Peckinpah, the film director, came there, and actors Warren Oates and Jeff Bridges and novelist Jim Harrison. Richard liked this crowd. He was still famous, and Tom was getting to be. Gatz Hjortsberg was beginning to sell his scripts. Russell Chatham’s paintings were catching on, especially with the Hollywood set. “Everybody was hitting at the same time,” Becky recalls. For a while, there were twenty-seven people living and writing at the McGuanes’ ranch, including Jimmy Buffett, who was sleeping in the barn and composing songs that turned up onthe radio, it seemed, only weeks later.
The early Seventies were, as the local bookstore owner John Fryer recalls, “a rude time, when nobody had any manners. And nobody cared.” Livingston got a reputation for its wild parties and sexual openness. The McGuanes split up; Tom went on to marry Margot Kidder, the actress, and then Laurie Buffett, Jimmy’s sister. Becky married Peter Fonda. “Then things began to settle down,” says Fryer. “Maybe things did get a little quiet around here for Richard.” The Fondas bought the ranch next to the McGuanes’: Tom raised horses; Peter raised alfalfa; and they all raised children.
Still, the air was supercharged with mischief. One night everyone came to Richard’s house for spaghetti, and the party wound up in such a terrific food fight that the house had to be repainted the next day. There was also a lot of gunplay, especially on Richard’s part. He liked to shoot anything, beer cans, books, record albums, his television set. One month a telephone repairman came to Richard’s house three times to replace his phones. The first two times they had been shot. The third time they had been burned. The repairman never said a word.
They were all competitive drinkers, but in that regard Richard invariably triumphed. “He drank harder than Dylan Thomas,” says Tom. An ordinary day would involve two fifths of George Dickel or Calvados or tequila or aquavit or whatever liquor Richard was favoring. “When he took off his socks, it would smell like alcohol,” one of his girlfriends says, “not feet, just pickled.” Tom was drinking heavily himself, but he finally quit and briefly persuaded Richard to quit as well. Richard was training for a European speaking tour. He went on a carrot diet and ordered jeans two sizes too small for him, but he never got into them. When he was changing planes in New York, he called Becky from the airport. “He was fried,” she says.
By then, Richard was well into the Hemingway curse. Book after book appeared, to be dismissed or ignored by the critics. They liked to dislike him. Richard had not flown nearly as high as his mentor, but he fell further, and faster, into almost complete anonymity, so that even girls he tried to pick up in bars had to be told that he was “a famous writer.” Richard began to fantasize that he would someday win the Nobel Prize, which was, after all, Hemingway’s revenge.
A year before Richard’s death, he was invited to read at Stanford. By this time, Richard, who had been wealthy, was broke again and in debt to his friends. Publishers were turning down his books: his agent even suggested that Richard not submit his latest novel. Richard often liked to play a game at his readings, which was to appear at the lectern and after about thirty minutes jump off the dais and invite the audience to join in. In the old days, this strategem would flush out all the tattered, treasured paperbacks of the pimply undergraduates, but this time there were no books out there. In fact, they scarcely knew who he was. Only courtesy kept them in their seats. “He was clearly going beyond what they wanted,” Ron Loewinsohn recalls. “It was embarrassing and painful. He obviously wanted to be onstage as long as they’d let him.”
He was still a star in Japan. He liked to call Tokyo “my New York,’ because he found in Japan a critical acceptance he had never received in his own country. The Japanese seemed to respond to Richard’s fascination with minutiae and repetition and to the plotlessness of his novels. For his part, Richard discovered in himself an Oriental cast of mind. He claimed to like Tokyo because of the neon lights. “They remind me of my childhood, when neon meant magic, excitement, romance,” Richard told a Japanese audience. “The neon lights of Tokyo give me back the eyes of a child.”
The Japanese discovered Richard in the middle Seventies, at a time when his fame and fortune in America were rapidly waning. His Japanese royalties had made him once again a relatively wealthy man, at least briefly. When Curt Gentry, who wrote Helter Skelter, came to visit Richard in Japan, he was alarmed to find him staying in a $145-a-day room in the Keio Plaza hotel. He had been in the room for a year. Curt quickly found Richard a more luxurious room at another hotel for half the price, but three weeks later Richard was back in the Keio Plaza. Most of his economies were false. He had discovered, for instance, that it was cheaper to buy a bottle at a bar and leave his name on it, but he usually forgot about them. All over Tokyo there were bottles bearing Richard’s name in Japanese.
Richard never bothered with the language: he enjoyed coasting above the mystery, reading his own meanings into events. In the daytime, Curt and Richard would walk through the Shinjuku district, and people would stare at them. “Let’s face it,” says Curt, “Richard was strange looking. He had long hair and a huge mustache; he wore the same rough clothes year in and year out and always some big hat on his head; and he was huge. It was no wonder people were staring at him. Little kids would be snickering. And then Richard would say, ‘See, Curt, everybody in Japan knows me. They recognize me from the covers of my books.’ “
One afternoon Richard was in his room in the Keio Plaza watching a children’s detective story on television when the telephone rang. It was a Japanese woman, defying custom by calling a man she didn’t know. She was nervous. She was married. Her name was Akiko.
She had been riding on the bullet train to Osaka when she saw a clipping about Richard’s book, The Abortion. She read it, then read everything she could find of his. She was surprised to find a Westerner who intuitively understood things in a Japanese way, especially about death. “For him, death was so nearby always,” Akiko says now. “For the oriental philosophy, life and death are the same thing. They are equal.”
There was a chapter in In Watermelon Sugar that particularly affected her, called “My Name.” “I am one of those who do not have a regular name,” said the narrator.
My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind.
If you are thinking about something that happened a long time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer.
That is my name.
Perhaps it was raining very hard.
That is my name.
Akiko read the passage with an extraordinary sense of identity. It was thrilling to her, this feeling that someone knew the world in a way that had been entirely private but unformed in her soul.
Perhaps you stared into a river. There was somebody near you who loved you. They were about to touch you. You could feel this before it happened. Then it happened.
That is my name.
And so Akiko was in love with the mind of Richard Brautigan before she ever met him. All that remained was to call him.
“It was karma,” says Aki.
This new little wife is kind of mysterious,” Richard used to say. His friends liked Akiko, but some feared Richard had miscalculated. “He thought he had gotten the archetypal geisha, who would walk three feet behind him,” Ron Loewinsohn says. “But Aki was really very modern and very tough.”
Her English was not good when they married and, in any case, Aki seldom displayed her true feelings. “The Oriental, we are good at killing our emotions,” she says. That left Richard free to read into her whatever he wanted her to feel. He liked to imagine what she thought. “He had some dream of women,” says Aki, “and he projected me to be the ideal type of woman. If you look at the picture of both of us — he gigantic, I like a dwarf — my height is like his waist. How odd couple we are.”
Aki was a big hit in Montana. Tom McGuane respected her wit, despite her unsteady English. When Richard would buy a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, Aki would say, “Oh, we’re flying to Tennessee tonight.” Russell Chatham taught her to fly-cast. All the men were beguiled, for she was beautiful and delicate and clever. Richard loved to show her off.
“I like to play ping-pong,” Aki remembers, “and Richard ordered a carpenter to make ping-pong table for me. We put it in the barn so I can play even in hard weather. We had a celebrity tournament of ping-pong. I very good at this. Richard Hodge [Richard’s attorney] and I are last in the tournament. He beat me. Richard was so disappointed, he destroyed the ping-pong table that night. When I wake up, it is in little pieces. I laughed. I really laughed. I think he wanted me to be his hero.”
But no one could live up to Richard’s ideals. “I think she intended to make a real go of it, but Richard made it impossible for her,” says Russell Chatham. “I’ve never seen anyone so destroyed and bitter over a divorce. He alienated a lot of his friends. We just couldn’t stand to hear about it over and over again.”
Tom McGuane chalked the divorce up to Richard’s alcoholism. “He never arrested his progressive disease, and because of that he deprived himself of a wonderful girl.”
For Aki, it was more complicated than that. Richard had created a persona for her, this female ideal, and when she betrayed his image of her, he became frighteningly violent. His depressions overwhelmed her. The longer she stayed with him, the more she realized that the persona he had created for her was not only that of a wife but also that of a friend, confidante, an agent and especially a mother.
Once Aki went on a trip with Richard and his friend Tony Dingman. Tony was a drinking companion who worked for Francis Coppola. He didn’t mind driving Richard wherever he wanted to go. They drove up to Great Falls, Montana, where Richard’s mother had abandoned him when he was about nine years old. She left him in a hotel room by himself — that was the story he often told. In the mornings, he would go down to the restaurant where his stepfather, Mr. Porterfield, was a fry cook. He would make Richard breakfast, then give him a dollar. For most of his life, Richard thought that Mr. Porterfield was his real father. Not until he graduated from high school did his mother tell him his real name was Brautigan, so that it would be right on his diploma. Perhaps, for that very private reason, he always claimed he hadn’t graduated.
What Richard never told anyone, ever, is that he was not alone in Great Falls. His little sister, Barbara, was there. She was four years old. Their mother left them together, says Barbara, expecting Richard to take care of her. “Why she left us — we never knew the reason,” Barbara recalls. “What I remember is that we used to go down to the railroad yard and watch the trains go in and out. We would wave at the passengers, and the black stewards would toss us pieces of candy. And we’d go ice-skating on the pond in our shoes. We couldn’t afford skates.” She doesn’t remember how long it was before their mother reclaimed them and took them home to Tacoma, Washington. They later moved to Eugene, Oregon.
Richard’s childhood was actually a kind of parenthood, since he raised Barbara while their mother worked. The two of them used to wonder if they had been adopted. “I can never remember our mother giving Richard a hug or telling us she loved us,” says Barbara. “We were just there. We never had a birthday party, not even a cake — it was just a day. Same with Christmas. Maybe we’d get one present.”
There seemed to be some mystery about himself — some disgrace — that Richard couldn’t unravel. Once he had made a trip to Tacoma to discover who his father really was. His birth certificate said his father was Bernard Brautigan, described as a “common laborer.” Richard claimed that he once met his real father on the street, and the man gave him five dollars, saying, “That’s all you’ll ever get from me.”
After Richard’s death, the elderly Mr. Brautigan denied that he had ever met his son. In fact, he said, he had never known that he had a son. He said that when he asked his former wife who Richard was, she told him Richard was a baby she had found in the gutter.
Richard turned to writing in high school. “He wrote all night long,” Barbara recalls, “then he’d sleep during the day. He would do odd jobs to support himself, like mow lawns. My folks rode him a lot. They never listened to what he was writing. They didn’t understand his writing was important to him. I know they asked him to get out of the house several times.”
When he was twenty years old, and developed his first crush on a girl, he finally got the nerve to show her his work. She dared to criticize. Richard was shattered. He was terrified. Because he didn’t know where else to go, he turned himself in to the police.
But we can’t arrest you, they told him, you haven’t done anything.
Richard walked outside and threw a rock through the station window. Now he’d done something. He spent a week in jail. When he got out, he was committed to the Oregon State Hospital and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. It was Christmas Eve 1955.
“I didn’t know he was there until after they let him out,” says Barbara. “I know he did have shock therapy. After that, he seemed real quiet. The only thing he told me about it was that he learned to dance in there. But he would never open up to me again. “A few days later, Richard called and told her he was going away — forever. “When you live that close to someone, someone who has fed you and clothed you and been your nursemaid, and then to have him tell you that he’s leaving and will never see you again — that was a real blow.”
“I guess he hated us,” his mother, Lulu Folston, says now. “Or maybe he had a disappointed love affair. Whatever. Richard practically abandoned the family when he left here. I haven’t the slightest idea why.”
The trip to Great Falls with Akiko was the only time in his life that Richard returned to one of the settings of his childhood. He was looking for something. One of his most frightening memories was the doorknob of the school in Great Falls. “But it was so cold,” Aki recalls. “He put very great stress on the coldness of the doorknob. He was scared of it. He would touch the doorknob and go home again.” He looked and looked, but he was never sure. There were so many doors.
Death was disappointing. One might have hoped that life’s mysteries would be made clear, not just relived in this pallid fashion. On the other hand, Richard did not really have such high expectations. Death, he had once written, was like a parked car:
You hot wire death, get in, and drive away
like a flag made from a thousand burning
You have stolen death because you’re bored.
There’s nothing good playing at the movies
in San Francisco.
You joyride around for a while listening
to the radio, and then abandon death, walk
away, and leave death for the police to find.
The police did find him, eventually, although they weren’t sure it was him, for there was scarcely anything left after the 44 Magnum and five weeks of maggots had done their work.
Why this final indignity? Was there no one left who loved him? No one who missed him enough to mark his absence?
He had been threatening suicide for years. He used to torture Ianthe with the idea, going so far as to call and tell her he was going to kill himself, then hanging up. He once convinced a friend at Enrico’s to drive him out to the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, so he could jump off. His friend couldn’t stop the car, because there was a big truck tailgating him. By the time they crossed the bridge, Richard was ready to go back to Enrico’s for another drink.
And he was leaving clues. Actor Rip Torn went to visit him in Montana and couldn’t get him to go fishing. He claimed he was working. He gave his rods to McGuane to store. (After Richard’s death, Tom found them in his basement, wrapped in dried flowers, along with a Japanese funeral urn.) His handwriting was always very small, but it began to shrink alarmingly. Becky Fonda had to resort to a magnifying glass to read his last letters from Japan — Richard had just been to his first funeral. “I’ve examined a number of options,” he wrote portentously,
and will soon apply action to my life. I’m waiting for a little more information, and the beautiful warm green spring of Japan. Then…a forty-nine-year-old man rattles his bones forward into the future.
When he came back to the States, he gave many the impression of being euphoric. He was thrilled about the Olympics and even joined in a parade for the athletes. But he was also morbid and sought out dead things. In Montana, a pony died in Marian Hjortsberg’s pasture, across the creek from Richard’s house. Richard insisted she bury it. Marian refused. “I can’t afford to have a back hoe come out here and did a $ 150-dollar hole just to put a pony in. Besides, fall is coming, Richard. He’ll be gone by spring.”
Richard couldn’t accept Marian’s refusal. He wanted her to honor the dead pony. He told her he was leaving Montana and never coming back. “We parted not speaking,” says Marian sadly. They had been lovers after her divorce from Gatz Hjortsberg.
Richard went back to his gloomy house in Bolinas. He was finding death everywhere. A hummingbird broke its neck when it tried to fly through Richard’s windowpane. Richard buried it. He went to speak to his friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, a novelist and actress, and told her he had been walking on the beach and had come upon a dead seal.
“Yeah,” said Bobbie, “there’s some virus in the seals.”
“So I lay down next to the seal and stared into its eyes. They were covered with flies.”
“God, Richard, didn’t it stink?”
Bobbie was concerned. She had figured that he was broke when he started trying to barter for things, and she wondered if he were really working as well as he claimed. One morning he came over for breakfast, an hour late, drunk on port. He said he had already written fifteen pages that day, but when Bobbie took him home, she saw his typewriter covered with dust.
One day, when Richard was drinking with friends in Bolinas, a guy pointed out to his girlfriend a little frog that had hopped onto the window. Richard ran out of the house and caught the frog and ate it.
“He didn’t have any place for the eccentricity to go,” says Bobbie. “It circled back in on him like an ingrown toenail. I don’t think he had the resources to be normal, especially when he got famous.” Bobbie had been close to fame during her marriage to the poet Robert Creeley. “You can be saved by being either excessively normal or excessively egocentric. You’ve got to have some internal pressure to resist the outside forces. Richard didn’t have the kind of creative ego that would have left him a healthy monster.”
On September 14th, 1984, Richard went into San Francisco. It was a day of coincidences. His former wife Akiko was in town, setting up a session with Francis Coppola and George Lucas for a Japanese photographer. She and the photographer had reservations to Los Angeles on a midday flight, but they had a little time, so Aki took him to a coffee shop on Broadway. She hadn’t seen him in four years.
She was coming out of a magazine shop when she saw Richard walking with another woman a hundred feet away from her. “I just followed him,” Aki recalls. “I might have hesitated if he were alone and I were alone. I just wanted to say hello, I guess. I just wanted to smile to him and have a smile back from him. “He went into Vanessi’s restaurant. I pulled open the first door. I waited for Richard to turn around and look at me. He was inside the second door. I stood there five or ten seconds. Then he found me, and he closed his eyes as if he saw a ghost. I never saw that kind of expression on a human being’s face. He liked the ghost stories so much, but the eye of his look as if he saw the real ghost. It was me. I was the ghost.”
That day Marcia Clay decided to find Richard. He had broken off from her four years before, because she had defended Aki during the divorce. “It was a strange thing. I thought, I’m missing Richard. I’m going to look for him at Enrico’s. There he was. He was shocked. He said he was planning to come to see me that day, and there I was, coincidentally looking for him.
“He had seen Aki an hour ago. He said to me, ‘I feel like my whole life has happened to me in one day.’ “
Marcia called him the next night in Bolinas. He asked if she liked his mind. “I said, ‘Yes, Richard, I like your mind. You have the ability to jump in and out of spaces. It’s not linear thinking; it’s exciting, catalytic, random thinking.’ “
Richard said, “Then I want to read you something.”
She wrote in her diary at 11:07 p.m.:
I’m calling Richard back in ten minutes…. I called him now just because he might need that…no debts. Some curiosity on my part. He is out in Bolinas looking for a piece of writing he wants to read to me. He is — as he answered to my perfunctory “How are you?” — “Fucked up.” When wasn’t he? But I’ll call back, because we are friends, and considering the many things that don’t work and never will, something with us does work and always will — if even in an uneven, at times pathetic way.
When she called back, she got an answering machine, with Richard’s voice asking for messages at the beep. But there was never a beep.
Later, when his friends got concerned and began to call, that voice became eerie and rather spectral as the batteries ran down. It sounded like some drunken, otherworldly Richard.
Marcia called and called. “I wanted to tell him that I like his mind,” she wrote in her diary,
a mind that passes through raw, unconventional territory and reposes itself on unresting surfaces. It is nowhere any of us wants to live, but it is there — all the places we do not venture that themselves venture forth without us, living and dying, mysteriously part of this human race that we are part of but would like to believe ourselves immune to.
Excerpts from Trout Fishing in America copyright © 1967 by Richard Brautigan; from In Watermelon Sugar copyright © 1968 by Richard Brautigan; from The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster copyright © 1968 by Richard Brautigan. Reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence.