Brooke K. Horvath's essay on 'Winter Rug' from 'Revenge of the Lawn'
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Wrapped in a Winter Rug: Richard Brautigan Looks at Common Responses to Death

By Brooke K. Horvath?
Purdue University

"Winter Rug?," a story included in Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970, reveals in brief compass the preoccupation with death central to Richard Brautigan's fiction. Whereas Brautigan's major imaginative efforts present characters who typically bring radical tactics into play in their efforts to gain psychological control over death (the retreat into fantasy in A Confederate General from Big Sur, death's imaginative revision in Trout Fishing in America, the attempt of the iDEATH inhabitants to live in and with death in In Watermelon Sugar, and the mock-heroic triumph over death achieved in The Abortion), "Winter Rug" examines the paltry efforts of two characters to defuse death's sting through recourse to society's less drastic, habitual ploys.

The story concerns an old dog "dying very slowly from senility." Owned by a wealthy old woman, the dog is eventually wrapped in an expensive Chinese rug and buried in the garden following the woman's reluctant decision to have her pet put "to sleep," a euphemistic expression that, like the rug, serves to hide death's reality. "Winter Rug," however, proves interesting not because of its plot but because of the responses the dog's death elicits from the narrator and his friend (the woman's gardener and the source of the story). Indeed, the first page of this stubby tale concerns not the dog and its owner but the narrator, who commences by presenting credentials to establish his competence to speak of death. His funeral vita begins:

My credentials? Of course. They are in my pocket. Here: I've had friends who have died in California and I mourn them in my own way. I've been to Forest Lawn and romped over the place like an eager child. I've read The Loved One, The American Way of Death, Wallets in Shrouds and my favorite After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.

The narrator goes on to cite funerals he has witnessed (from a distance) and recalls once seeing a corpse, "done tastefully in a white sheet," carried out of a skid row flophouse to an ambulance solemnly waiting to drive it away, his friend remarking at the time that "Being dead [was] one step up from living in that hotel." The narrator concludes simply, "As you can see, I am an expert on death in California."

The narrator's opening lines thus disclose several common means of masking death's horror. His mourning, like the tasteful winding sheet and stately processional bestowed upon a flophouse resident, witnesses to society's usual practice of blanketing death in distracting legalities and honors (the ambulance "was prohibited by law from having a siren"); of wrapping it in ritualized, symbolic acts that serve to sooth us survivors; of handing it over to professionals to be disguised and distanced: all ways of removing death from the sphere of daily life, ways ably dissected in Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. Reading this book and the others mentioned suggests a second common attempt at conquering death's strangeness: the acquisition of knowledge, the knowledge-is-power routine.

The narrator also tells of visiting Forest Lawn and romping "like an eager child," as though life's final mystery could be familiarized, made the object of happy expectation, rendered innocuous (ploys Brautigan characters attempt elsewhere, as in The Abortion and In Watermelon Sugar), made part of a game (an attempt made in many of the stories of childhood in Revenge: for instance, "The Ghost Children of Tacoma?," "A Need for Gardens," and "Sand Castles?"). His childlike behavior suggests further a denial of time's passage, a willed return to innocence, to that time when, necrobiotically speaking, one is as far from death as one will ever be. Finally, the friend's joke, with its allusion to the notion of death as the doorway to one's reward, seeks to deflect a discomfiting confrontation through humor, which serves to distance the fact of death and to deflate its seriousness.

Beginning his account of the dog's death, the narrator observes that "the dog had been dying for so long that it had lost the way to death." Dwelling upon the dog's suffering, the narrator resorts implicitly to the perennial wisdom, seeing death as a release from suffering, a kindness: it is the animal's "time"; death is for the best. In short, this "metaphysical war" (as the narrator describes the enterprise of funeral directors) is won by giving death a purpose, by transforming it from end to means (another tactic in the Revenge stories: compare "A Complete History of Germany and Japan?").

Finally, the story closes with the friend cursing the dog and having second thoughts about burying a rug worth $1000. Although someone earning a gardener's wages might well regret the lost opportunity of possessing such a treasure, more importantly the friend's comment reveals another prevalent means of controlling death anxieties: by reducing death's place in the scheme of things, by pretending that other things are worthier of one's concern, things whose loss constitutes sounder reason to mourn.

"Winter Rug" presents its thanatopsis with unusual guilelessness, but its catalog of life-enhancing illusions is far from unusual. Although the narrator claims to be "an expert on death," clearly he is no more experienced than most of us, and his attempts at controlling his responses to life's irremediable end are among society's routine strategies, as he must know from his reading. The defensive tone with which he begins — as well as his limiting his area of expertise to "death in California" — exposes self-doubts vis-à-vis that mastery of death's mystery his introduction is supposedly establishing, just as his story reveals one old woman's pathetic attempts first to deny death's reality ("When the old woman [first saw the death doctor's] little black bag, she paled visibly. The unnecessary reality of it scared her...") and then to control death by choosing the time and means of her pet's departure.

But the inadequacy of the narrator's ploys and those of his friend are perhaps best suggested by the fact that an unknown dog's death has so captured the narrator's imagination, has thrust the problem of death so unavoidably before him, that he must transform it into a story, into art. Particularly in the absence of religious belief (an absence present in this story), such an act, according to psychologists and literary theorists alike, is inherently concerned with giving our endings meanings, with creating illusions that make endings part of a comprehensible, hence meaningful and possibly acceptable whole. If the narrator of "Winter Rug" has gained any control over death, he has done so — as, perhaps, has his creator — by capturing it in a fiction.

Notes on Modern American Literature 8.3
Winter 1984: Item 14

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