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A frigid hat, a dead architect and two smart dicks

Sombrero Fallout

A Japanese Novel
By Richard Brautigan
187 pp., Simon and Schuster, $6.95

Richard Brautigan inspired some foolish praise in his time, a time that ended almost as soon as it began, but he never angled for it and that is to his credit. He is a serious writer, certainly, but the mark of his seriousness is in his craft, especially as a stylist; he is not pretentious. Thus his 1971 novel, The Abortion, is dedicated to someone named Frank, apparently a slow reader: "come on in--/read novel--/it's on the table/in front room. I'll be back/in about/2 hours." And the protagonist of his new book is identified as a "very well-known American humorist." Not novelist or poet, not even writer--just humorist.

For at his best that is what Brautigan is. Compared to Doris Lessing or Frank O'Hara he's a midget, but he stands tall enough next to Woody Allen, or even Robert Benchley or George Ade; on a small scale he has been an original and an innovator. As might have been predicted, however, Sombrero Fallout does not represent Brautigan at his best. Not only is it the least funny of his books, but its paucity of humor is intentional, capping a dilemma that would appear to be permanent: he no longer knows what to write about.

The three novels that brought Brautigan his fame around 1970--A Confederate General From Big Sur, Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar--were reprints. They were written in the early and mid-'60s, when Brautigan was an impecunious, poetry-writing bohemian from northern California. It isn't likely that he foresaw the role bohemians from northern California were about to assume in the national imagination any more than anyone else did. But he will survive as the literary representative of that phenomenon in American culture known as The Hippies.

Brautigan's reputation is based on a surrealism notable for its grace, its matter-of-fact flow; his narrative technique is so conversational and pellucid that preternatural details and crazy coincidences don't even ripple its surface. (Certain rock lyrics, carried along on the beat, achieve a not dissimilar effect. In fact, Brautigan's chief competition in the realm of hippie art comes from the Grateful Dead, who make up for not being funny by being good to dance to.) But his best work--especially A Confederate General From Big Sur, but also Trout Fishing in America and the more memorable stories--is realistic much of the time, as remarkable for its content as for its form. Brautigan documented a way of life in which his style of surrealism was almost second nature, evoking '60s bohemianism far more intensely than Kerouac ever did that of the '50s. His world was passive and goofy; his voice displayed whimsical (if not coy) amazement at the most banal of events. As he teetered between the edge of comfort and the edge of survival, Brautigan was often sad but never pessimistic.

As the broad attraction of this gentle vision among the literate young became apparent, however, Brautigan was transformed from an impecunious bohemian into a successful popular author. It was a big change, and he knew it. Each of the three novels to appear after his success--The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971), The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974), and Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (1975)--is subtitled to indicate some sort of play with a popular literary form. What's more, after The Abortion, a bohemian novel much fatter and more perfunctory than the earlier ones, Brautigan tried to do what popular authors do--invent plots and characters. He has not proved to be very good at this, and his failure seems to have cut into his optimism quite a bit.

The full title of the new book is Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. The subtitle is ambiguous, the book is dedicated to a Japanese novelist of the respectably perverse whose main similarity to the old optimistic Brautigan is brevity. But if in two previous novels Brautigan has toyed with popular forms, this time he resorts to the most hackneyed of pretentious literary devices: the self-conscious, self-lacerating author/protagonist and his novel within a novel.

Actually, this self-laceration is not without interest. A feature of Brautigan's novels has been charming, but finally unconvincing love affairs with pliant young women who are always very pretty and always good in bed. On occasion the affairs have been sad or have failed, and last time there was even a tragic one (out of two); this time, however, the relationship is what you'd expect of a man who imagines women so pliant--candidly exploitative and neurotic. It is also entirely the fault of his "very well-known American humorist," whom Brautigan dissects with a fine, cruel hand.

Meanwhile, the novel within the novel--in which a surrealistic detail, a frigid sombrero, precipitates a disastrous mob action that takes thousands of lives--is so gratuitously nihilistic that Kurt Vonnegut takes on the weight of the prophet Jeremiah by comparison. Mob action indeed. Does this pessimistic turn merely reflect the derangement of his lovelorn protagonist? Or does it also reflect the way Brautigan feels about the hordes of young people who read his books? One senses yet another artist who feels defeated by his audience and longs for simpler times. And one wishes to remind him that times were never that simple, and that the audience is out there affecting your life whether you acknowledge it or not.

The New York Times, Oct. 10, 1976