Why Richard Brautigan Should Be the Patron Saint of ‘zines

by Erik Miller (© 1994)
erik can be contacted at esmiller at jps dot net

This article originally appeared in Cool Beans on 1993.

Richard Brautigan 1935-1984

He is my favorite writer, living or dead. No other has captured a vision of the world that seems to be so close to my own. The reason I believe he should be the patron saint of ‘zines is because of what he wrote about in his 1970 book The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966.

The book is the story of a librarian and his girlfriend, who go to Tijuana to obtain an illegal abortion. Althought the book is titled The Abortion, there is at least one major thing going on other than this main story line, as is typical with his novels. Examination of the front cover reveals the inscription, “This novel is about the romantic possibilities of a public library in California” right at the bottom. So it’s really about the library denizens, two of whom go to Tijuana for an abortion.

Before they leave for Tijuana, Brautigan tells us about the special library where the guy works. The library is a sort of repository for unpublished books. 24 hours a day, anyone who has written a book can bring it in, have it catalogued, and place it wherever they would like on the shelves.

We never really find out about whatever shadowy endowment or powers that be that make the library possible. It’s some foundation called The American Forever, Etc. The enterprise seems to be founded on the belief that if someone wants to write something, there should be a place for it, no matter how personal their obsession or uncommercial the material. Or it may be a tax shelter.

Read the chapter titled “The 23.” It’s a description of the twenty-three books that come in one day, along with descriptions of the writers. It reads like a whimsical version of Factsheet Five, and like Factsheet Five, I wind up wanting to read every single book that he talks about.

It starts with My Trike by Chuck, a five-year old who makes a picture book about his tricycle, goes to Leather Clothes and the History of Man by S.M. Justice, a “quite motorcylclish” man clad in leather clothes who tells the librarian, “I like a man who likes leather.” (this was almost 25 years ago; how little things change), makes its way to The Stereo and God by The Rev. Lincoln Lincoln (any 8-Track Mind fans out there?), passes Vietnam Victory by Edward Fox, who recommended killing everybody there, and lands on The Need For Legalized Abortion by Dr. O.

Pretty close to what you’d find on the ‘zine scene today, except for the obvious dearth of music-oriented titles. Food took the place of music as Brautigan’s characters’ favorite obsession, with Breakfast First, Bacon Death, The Egg Layed Twice, Pancake Pretty, and The Culinary Dostoyevsky all coming in that day.

Richard Brautigan’s genius was initially recognized while he was alive, and then forgotten, but I believe that one day he’ll be rediscovered by a new generation, as Hesse was before him. Just yesterday, I heard of a guy in Ventura who had his name legally changed to Trout Fishing in America, which is the name of Brautigan’s most famous novel.

When he died in 1984 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the obituaries portrayed him as an embittered failure, a ’60’s relic whose best work had been done 15 years earlier. I read the last novel he wrote, So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away, and while it did not display so much of the kindly, whimsical tone typical of his earlier stuff, the book was about an accidental homicide committed by the narrator, and created an amazing sense of growing dread in the reader. I’d call it evidence of a maturing of his style. He looked to have been gearing up to delve into more “serious” territory.

I don’t know if he was embittered, or considered himself a failure, but he was an active alcoholic, and in the midst of a drunken episode, death may have seemed like a good idea. Many things do, sometimes, that we wouldn’t normally consider. Reading his books again, I think that maybe he came to the realizaton that he couldn’t inhabit the gentle world that he had created in his books, and didn’t want to live any more in this one. Who knows?

His books can often be found at used book stores or thrift stores, as it seems that they were once considered an accessory to the hippie lifestyle much as, say, the ReSearch books are often found in the homes of today’s hipsters. When the people moved on to a different lifestyle, they dumped their accessories, including the Richard Brautigan books. I cannot blame them for this; often when one sets out to put aside the things of one’s youth, one may drop some things that perhaps do not deserve to be dropped.

Contrary to the claims made in some of the obituaries, however, his writings are not dated relics of the hippie era. Brautigan was a little too old for the Haight, having hit the dreaded 30 mark in 1965. He was a gentle misfit, and was therefore accepted by the hippies.

He will always be a voice for people who feel a little outside of things, who never quite feel 100% comfortable with the strange games and tinsel trappings of modern life. I wish that he and that bottle and that bullet hadn’t put a stop to his output.

Here’s a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle’s review of Trout Fishing in America: “…there is nothing like Richard Brautigan anywhere. Perhaps when we are very old, people will write ‘Brautigans,’ just as we now write novels. Let us hope so.”

I know that every time I see a homemade ‘zine at a newsstand, or sitting on the floor of someone’s flat, I think for a moment of Brautigan’s Library and the kind souls who populated it.

Trout Fishing in America
A Confederate General From Big Sur
In Watermelon Sugar
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western
Willard And His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery
Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942
The Tokyo-Montana Express
So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away

Short Stories:
The Revenge of the Lawn

The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Lay the Marble Tea
The Octupus Frontier
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace
Please Plant This Book
The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster
Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt
Loading Mercury With a Pitchfork
June 30th, June 30th