Few careers in American letters have had as spectacularly dismal an end as that of Richard Brautigan. In the blink of a decade he went from being one of his era’s most popular authors, with millions of copies of his books in circulation, to a man unable to find a publishing contract. His 1984 suicide wasn’t discovered for at least a month—with the aid of an answering machine and automated household lights—by which time his body was in such an advanced state of decay that it proved impossible to determine the exact date of his death. He was 49 years old.
It’s frequently suggested that the cataclysmic decline in Brautigan’s readership was bound to the coeval collapse of the ’60s counterculture. Being identified as the “poet laureate of the hippies” was not a helpful association once the hippies were gone, and journals that had long championed his writing dismissed the “genre experiment” novels of the ’70s. Mainstream critics eviscerated him with the zeal a pack of rabid dogs might address to a squirrel suddenly fallen from a sapling.
The irony here is twofold. Sales, and perhaps the occasional benefits of free love aside, by most accounts Brautigan had absolutely no interest in the world of hippiedom. It seems to have actually been abhorrent to him. Even as a last wave beat amid the fluid literary salons of North Beach, he was considered a dark horse, a geeky outsider, and the success of Trout Fishing in America in 1967 was widely viewed as the very essence of divine fluke. Had the novel appeared in 1961 when it was originally composed (along the banks of Idaho’s Salmon River, incidentally), it might well have disappeared without further ado. For some reason, it found an audience in “Hashbury,” and word-of-mouth enthusiasm made it an underground best seller.
This celebrity led to the second half of the Brautigan conundrum, which is the mystery of why his writing found such an audience in the first place. The general assessment one gleans from dust-jacket blurbs and the like is that Brautigan was valued as a kind of deft light comedian, a fey, whimsical fellow full of “gentle humor.”
The facts of his death, obviously, offer their own corrigenda to this view in hindsight, yet it’s still difficult to fathom how anyone could have missed how desperately lonely his entire oeuvre was from the outset. Themes of loss, of alienation, of the innate existential separateness of humans from each other and from the world permeate Brautigan’s books the way oxygen permeates the air. In his repetitions and absurdist reductions, Brautigan may have been the bleakest writer in English since Samuel Beckett—another author considered, in some quarters, to have been an accomplished humorist.
Brautigan could hardly have chosen a more appropriate evaluator of his legacy than Greg Keeler, whose own career bears some uncanny similarities to that of his elder. Truly great satire is a tricky art form, wherein the artist’s complicity with the object of ridicule can easily lead to confusion among readers. Consider that Gulliver’s Travels was thought to be a factual travelogue by many of its earliest enthusiasts. Keeler’s reputation in Montana, primarily as a composer of clever songs, not only glosses over the abysmally dark subtext of the best of them, it seems to have led to widespread misreading of his formal poetry as well. Keeler is, to put it baldly, one of the most undervalued treasures in current American literature, a circumstance acutely demonstrated by his collection previous to the Brautigan book, The Sea Widow’s Journal: To a Fisherman Drowned. As starkly eloquent a meditation on the effects of deep grief as exists in print, it appeared in an edition of merely 150 copies.
In Waltzing with the Captain, Keeler modestly offers a series of reminiscences and anecdotes from his years riding shotgun with Brautigan, who spent much of his final decade in and around Montana’s Paradise Valley. Actually, since Brautigan appears never to have held a driver’s license, it was Keeler who did the driving, but the Sancho Panza/Don Quixote (or was it Vladimir and Estrogen?) nature of their friendship is never in question. Brautigan was a wild man to be sure, as mercurial and unpredictable a personality as ever walked the earth. Yet in retelling a few key incidents, Keeler manages to tap a deeper vein, both in terms of understanding his attraction to an often infuriating companion and making a case for Brautigan as a writer worth reevaluating.
Keeler’s “bunny theory” of literary criticism is priceless, the sort of jargon-imploding wit that everyone corrupted by Modern Theory ought to be exposed to (and will have to buy the book to have explained to them). Brautigan manages to get the last word even there, with a mordantly funny anecdote of his own. In another incident, Brautigan gives Keeler and a visiting scholar from Scotland a lesson in “conceptual criticism” Montana-style by lining up a couple copies of an academic study dismissive of his work and having them shot with a .357 magnum. The resulting hole produces a little book-within-the-book that generates its own language—a dangerous variety of critical discourse, but one that readily illustrates the curious fascination of Brautigan’s sensibility.
Whether Brautigan is to be rediscovered is a question this droll, haunting memoir can only pose, not answer. In its disarmingly understated, conversational prose, which has the peculiar effect of deepening when reread, one certainly hopes that Keeler’s first prose book will not be his last. Montana can use a few more grim chuckles.