Bruce Cook's review of 'The Hawkline Monster'
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'A Gothic Western,' He Calls It, and He's Right

by Bruce Cook?

Anybody who comes unsuspecting onto a book by Richard Brautigan is in for a surprise. Not a shock - shocks are unpleasant, right? And Richard Brautigan is good for you. He will surprise you by being totally original. No writer you can think of is quite like him today, nor was any writer anytime - unless you can imagine the kind of things Mark Twain? might have written had he wandered into a field of ripe cannabis with a pack of Zig Zag papers in his pocket. That's about as close as I can come to Brautigan, a kind of cracker-barrel surrealist whose humor is essentially Nineteenth-Century Western American.

Which is not much in the way of a description, I know, but you can only really get to know what he's like, after all, by reading his books. And there is a new one out now - The Hawkline Monster, for which he provides an odd but accurate subtitle, "A Gothic Western."

Is this one a good place to start? Well, Brautigan has now written five of what he calls novels. The others - and please note the titles class - are Trout Fishing in America, A Confederate General from Big Sur, In Watermelon Sugar, and The Abortion. Mostly, they are as screwy as they sound. They are loose narratives - in Trout Fishing, there is no narrative at all - dribbled out in brief, topical sections that treat various aspects of the subject at hand.

The most realistic of them is A Confederate General from Big Sur, a kind of extended beach idyll - the adventures of two flaky guys in Monterey and environs. And that's the way The Abortion should have been, too, but Brautigan began taking himself seriously as an absurdist, and he seemed to feel he had to deck out what was essentially realistic and probably autobiographical material in an arty what-does-this-mean? sort of frame; the clue here is that the book doesn't really take off, has no reality, until Brautigan begins to tell us about that sad trip down to Tijuana for the abortion.

Crazy, Inspired Images

He was probably conned into this by the success of Trout Fishing in America, which everyone (me included) seems to agree is his best book. It says a lot in an odd way about ecology, living in San Francisco, and growing up in Oregon, and it says it in crazy, inspired images that are sure to stick with you for years and years to come.

Besides which, he has had several collections of poetry that are, in their several separate ways, just as rare as his fiction. There's Please Plant This Book, which seems to be mostly just a packet of seeds. There's The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, whose title poem seems made-to-order for the "Right to Life" folks:

When you take your pill
it's like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
lost inside of you.

There are many other poems and a couple of other books, but that should give you a pretty good idea of Brautigan, the poet.

He's a short story writer, too - a very short story writer. In fact, some of the shortest stories in the English language are by Richard Brautigan. Here's one he calls "The Scarlatti Tilt":

"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

That says it all, doesn't it? I mean, as Rabbi Hillel put it, "All the rest is commentary." "Scarlatti" is in a collection titled The Revenge of the Lawn; all the other stories in it are longer, though many of them are not by much.

The 'Lookalike' Killer

Getting back to The Hawkline Monster, then, how does it fit in with all the rest? Well, it's good, representative Brautigan, maybe not quite up to Trout Fishing in America but a damsite better than The Abortion. It's got a stronger narrative than the rest of them and stronger characters too - sort of. It's about a couple of Wild West hired killers named Greer and Cameron who are different from everyone else but pretty much like one another: "They both looked about the same except they had different features and different builds... One of them was taller than the other but once you turned your back on them you wouldn't be able to remember which one it was." Not only that, but it also turns out that the handsome young lady they come to do a job of work for out in eastern Oregon is twins.

What she wants them to do is a little out of their line. The big old turreted, gabled Victorian monstrosity of a house where she and her sister live is haunted by a monster. She knows it, and she wants Greer and Cameron to get rid of the thing. Eventually they do, but not until after they have fought out a queer and protracted battle with it up and down and all around the house. After which the girls are then reunited with their mad scientist father who unwittingly created the monster in the first place.

Texture Is All

I know, I know. It sounds pretty wild, doesn't it? But just remember that with Brautigan, texture is all. He can pull off some of the craziest, silliest stuff any writer ever attempted simply because he gives everything he writes a very firm basis in reality through his telling use of specific details, and also through his diction, which is flat, colloquial, and rock solid. All this has the effect of encouraging us to suspend our disbelief. Reading a Richard Brautigan book is like watching a movie: You believe it as long as it is happening.

The Hawkline Monster is like movie-watching in some other ways too. It is visually suggestive, cool, understated, and elliptical in style, and it seems always to exist in the cinematic present. Brautigan says that whenever his inspiration begins to flag, he rushes down to a fleabag theater in San Francisco and sees a quick triple feature, then runs back to the typewriter. Well, it's beginning to show. And on him it looks good.

National Observer
September 14, 1974: 23

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