Easy Writer

In Watermelon Sugar BY Richard Brautigan. Vintage/Ebury (a Division of Random. Paperback, 160 pages. $17.

The cover of In Watermelon Sugar

LIKE HIS BOOKS, Richard Brautigan was hip and wry, with a distinctly western affect. (Not uptight.) Janis Joplin wanted him to name her band. Rolling Stone said “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.” A sensitive New Age guy, he was the so-called patron saint of hippies. (“I do what everybody else does,” wrote Brautigan in the story collection Revenge of the Lawn. “I live in San Francisco.”) Where Jonathan Franzen writes coolly of “the woman I live with,” Brautigan rhapsodized about “the woman who travels with me.” He walked with “a swanlike gait.”

Brautigan made love and writing look easy, especially when he was writing about love. In all his books, he insisted on a postscript that said how long it took to write it, as if to indicate his priorities were elsewhere. The writing was too easy, said critics, but his books still read well in the summer. Perhaps because he played to our more prurient interests. Ever the nonchalant, he posed with his girlfriends on his book jackets—forever preserving his “sexual archive.” Hilda Hoffman posed with Brautigan for the cover of his third novel, In Watermelon Sugar (1968)—about a love triangle on a proto-hippie commune. A pubescent-looking woman with an upturned chin, Hoffman left her singing and dancing troupe in New York, where she was from, for life in the Golden State. We don’t know anything else about her, except she was Paul Krassner’s ex-girlfriend. For the photograph, Hoffman carefully parted and combed her bleached-out hair, donned a sundress, and applied eyeliner to her lower lids. Her shoulders are tensed. She must have thought, correctly, this photo would make her famous. (Brautigan’s undisputed masterpiece, Trout Fishing in America, had come out the year before, in 1967.) I like to think Brautigan posed himself slightly off her right shoulder on purpose, like a cartoon angel there to soothe her inner conflict about choosing the right pout for posterity. Long-haired, with a heavy blond mustache, he looks louche and confident by comparison, his chin resting casually on his arms, leaning into his knees in the narrow staircase leading to his kitchen. His porn mustache is a prominent facial feature. The shutter clicks just as Hoffman looks at Brautigan out of the corner of her eye. She can’t tell if she’s doing it right. It’s a good photograph. (As a point of contrast, that same year an already grizzled Bukowski posed alone, beer belly out, for the cover of poems written before jumping out of an 8 story window.)

In Watermelon Sugar is a simple, feel-good narrative poem about a writer living in an idyllic town called iDEATH. He writes, eats communal meals with his friends, avoids his ex-girlfriend, and falls in love with an Earth Mother type, in charge of cooking the food. (“Her hand had a lot of strength gained through the process of gentleness. . . . She sat very close to me. I could feel the warmth of her body through her dress.”) “We call everything a river here,” the narrator explains. “We’re that kind of people.” They go dancing at the fish hatchery; the trees smell cold. But it’s Brautigan’s famous “wild fabulation” that gives the book its poetic structure. Watermelon sugar? That’s just what Brautigan sweetly says everything is made of, from the paper he’s writing on to his lover’s dress. We soon learn residents are haunted by the talking tigers that ate most of the adults a few decades ago, but the tone doesn’t change register to inform the reader that this is a fact of life, just like the sun shining a different color every day (which it does).

At first, the book seems to function as a parable about the dangers of materialism. The narrator, a hippie of sorts, is unburdened by stuff and excess emotion (“The shack is small but pleasing and comfortable as my life”); the bad guys are alcoholics sequestered in a de facto garbage dump; a woman (the narrator’s ex) obsessed with junk dies from unrequited love. But the story goes further, seemingly prefiguring the snobbishness and insularity of communal-style living and the limitations of free love. The narrator of In Watermelon Sugar ignores the violence he witnesses—the mass suicide of the alcoholics, and of his ex-girlfriend—in favor of his new love affair. Reading this book is not unlike enjoying the lusciousness of The Conformist, which is startling for its incongruity with the narrative.

Brautigan is no sap. After all, how you treat others amounts to a politics. In Trout Fishing in America, a bookseller fantasizes—or rather, ventriloquizes, “in an anti-dandelion side of the mountain voice”—about a love affair:

You fought in the Spanish Civil War. You were a young Communist from Cleveland, Ohio. She was a painter. . . . Once while you were at the front she read Anatomy of Melancholy and did 349 drawings of a lemon. Your love for each other was mostly spiritual. Neither one of you performed like millionaires in bed. When Barcelona fell, you and she flew to England, and then took a ship back to New York. Your love for each other remained in Spain. It was only a war love. You loved only yourselves, loving each other in Spain during the war.

You might love women for themselves, or you might be a man in need of shelter. It’s cynical to say so, but Brautigan didn’t think that made his gestures any less romantic. His books reflect a simple ethos. The world is fucked up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a girlfriend, and another, and another. He wrote a poem about this, I think, called “Xerox Candy Bar.” “Ah, / you’re just a copy / -of all the candy bars / I’ve ever eaten.”

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer, and native Montanan, living in Manhattan.