Naïve Melodies

A posthumous book unearths the early works of Richard Brautigan.

During his prolific writing career, Richard Brautigan zigzagged across the thin line separating goofiness from charm more times than his Beat forebears sped across the country. Unlike Kerouac, the lanky loner from Tacoma found inspiration in the people—particularly pretty women—and the environment of the Northwest, and he reflected who or what he saw with a peculiar poetry. The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings

by Richard Brautigan (Mariner Books, $14) While many in the literary establishment, and even some peers, considered Brautigan's naﶥ melodies the work of an undistinguished writer, he struck a chord with the hippies who had overrun his adopted hometown of San Francisco. They helped propel his mid-'60s opuses, Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, into popular books. But Brautigan's was a troubled soul. He could pen a microscopic vignette that somehow carried so much meaning, as in the 1968 poem "Map Shower," which reads in its entirety: "I want your hair/to cover me with maps/of new places,/so everywhere I go/will be as beautiful/as your hair." But he was also a quirky curmudgeon who spent the last 15 years of his life traveling between Montana and Tokyo, writing books that seesawed between dour and whimsical, between romance and misogyny. Then, in 1984, he apparently shot himself and died. The just-published Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings helps reconcile Brautigan the benign chronicler of the lovestruck '60s and the self-doubting and sexually perverse mystery spinner of 1975's Willard and His Bowling Trophies (which starred a stuffed parrot). On the verge of leaving his home in Eugene circa 1955, the 21-year-old fledgling author gave Webster, the mother of his girlfriend, the stories and poems in this posthumous book. Filled with the type of hubris common to many a young man with literary stardom on his mind, he addressed the package with the note, "When I am rich and famous, Edna, this will be your social security." In 1992, Edna decided to cash in, calling a Brautigan collector who in turn phoned rare book dealer Burton Weiss. As he spells out in a suitably brief introduction, Weiss flew to Eugene, met with Webster, sorted through the photos and manuscripts, and quickly arranged a sale; the resulting book, he says, was edited only sparingly. Much like Brautigan's other work from the '50s and '60s, this new collection is mildly experimental in form, maneuvering from terse poems to prose sketches to what could be considered the predecessor of Saturday Night Live's sardonic Deep Thoughts segments. The young writer is at his most poignant when veiling his pain behind vivid, small-scale descriptions in "A Love Letter from State Insane Asylum." In another piece attributable to his six-month stay in a mental hospital, "I Watched the World Glide Effortlessly Bye," and in many of the other works included here, Brautigan reveals more of his detached and unhappy upbringing than in his other works. Whatever Ms. Webster received in financial remuneration couldn't buy the biographical insight summed up in the typically Brautiganesque line that punctuates his short poem "dear old mommie": "God bless/her soul/that/did a perfect/imitation/of a mole." That Brautigan maintains his niche these many years after his death isn't a surprise. While his books aren't required reading in most university lit courses, any free-spirited college student will surely hear of the crafty Trout Fishing sooner or later. One obstacle to Brautigan's earning a place in the canon, or at least losing his asterisk-like tag of "counterculture writer," may be overcome with the release of The Edna Webster Collection. Now we may see Brautigan not as the happy-go-lucky freak who simply took a wrong turn, but as a gentle and confused artist who used words to paint a brighter picture of the world than the one he knew.

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