Summer Of Love
This is the kind of quote which typifies Edward Abbey. It will make some people laugh out loud, and others shake their heads. The greatest thing about Abbey was that he really wouldn't have given a damn whether you liked it or not.
Edward Abbey was born on January 29, 1927 in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Growing up during the Great Depression in the nearby village of Home in an impoverished but liberal family, he never excelled at school, and astonishingly failed journalism at high school twice. He enlisted in the US Army after his graduation, serving in Italy just as World War 2 drew to a close. After his discharge, he went to college at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of New Mexico, and also spent a year at Edinburgh University in Scotland, concentrating his studies in the field of philosophy and developing an interest in anarchism, which would later influence much of his writing.
Although he had several fictional novels published beforehand (Jonothan Troy, The Brave Cowboy, Fire on the Mountain), Abbey�s breakthrough work came in 1968 with the publication Desert Solitaire. A vivid account of his time spent as a seasonal ranger in the Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in Utah, it is full of Abbey's trademark dry humour, philosophy and environmental awareness and stands as both a tribute and an obituary to the American desert that he loved so much. As he laments in the introduction, "Most of what I wrote about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy."
Seven years later Abbey unleashed The Monkey Wrench Gang. It followed the comical antics of a group of freewheeling environmental saboteurs, or "monkey wrenchers", trying to halt the insidious the march of development into the desert through non-violent direct action. Echoing Abbey's environmental concerns, including the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, and with characters based on real life figures, the book inspired countless environmentalists to take up a "wrench" in defense of the wilderness.
Abbey died at age 69, on March 14, 1989 following complications from surgery on a recurrent vascular problem. He was brought home to die by friends, and was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Cabeza Prieta desert in Arizona. Amongst his instructions for burial was the line "I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree." A fitting end for a great man of the American wilderness.
Catch-22 was one of those rare novels that I could immediately relate to. I madly fell in love with the character of Yossarian, the witty yet psychotic protagonist of the novel. Yossarian feels estranged from the society he lives in. He is alarmed to find out that the accepted norm of human behavior nowadays is to kill one another. He is even more alarmed to find out that he is the only one to find it alarming in the first place. Yossarian realizes that he is completely entangled in a web of 'oxymorons' and catch-22s. Furthermore, his life is in the hands of his superiors, a class of men so estranged from the minds of their subordinates that they may as well be considered the enemy. Yossarian epitomizes every insecurity one might feel. Through his actions, we get to experience every moment of enlightenment, moment of cowardice, moment of common sense, moment of victory, or moment of defeat one might have in life. In my mind, he is me. The only differences I see is that his society is that of a military base in Pianosa, while mine is that of a war-hungry and vengeful America, his superiors are military generals, while mine are government leaders, and his web is spun by the odd behavior of humans due to the lunacy of war. My tangled web is spun by the odd behavior of humans due to the lunacy of popular culture and belief.
Joseph Heller, the author of this bizarre novel, is no ordinary writer. As an avid reader and amateur writer, I often not only read the novel, but also analyze the writing style. What strikes me about Heller is that, unlike most writers, each chapter, page, or even word seems to resonate with his name. He doesn't follow the accepted norm of a story unfolding in coordination with the space-time continuum. Heller's chapters don't follow a timeline at all. One part of the book might be talking about a past experience that will be narrated in a later chapter. His panache is unmistakable, and, like it or not, with each passing page, the reader begins to grow more infatuated with his words. Don't get me wrong, Heller writes in a heavily stylized, repetitive way that becomes severely afflicted with mannerisms. Some might call his writing annoying (indeed, I was struck by a critic's comment that Catch-22" doesn't even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper"). The novel is peppered with such a large amount of lame jokes and banal dialogues that it is very easy to look past the astute observations Heller makes about society. The biggest argument I can make defending Heller is that his writing style grows under your skin. Like Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness, Heller's writing is totally incomparable to others. Perhaps that makes him the best author out there, or perhaps that makes him the worst. Either way, Heller accomplishes what most egocentric writers (including myself) want to achieve. He is remembered.
Catch-22 has an overwhelmingly difficult task: in the measly span of 450 pages, it tries to ridicule all the idiosyncrasies of life. And, believe me, coming from someone who has spent 16 years trying to ridicule those very same principles, it is a hard job to tackle. The book is set in an Allied Air Force base during World War II, and it centers on the lives of several American pilots. Heller begins the serious and painstaking job of making fun of the world by bringing up the first of his many catch-22s. Yossarian, in a desperate attempt to stay grounded, goes to the doctor at the base, Doc Deneeka, and asks if there is anyway for him not do any more flights over enemy territory. The good doctor replies that the only way to be relieved from duty is to be certified insane. So certify me insane, I paraphrase Yossarian's plea. Nothing doing, smiles the doctor knowingly, for if someone tries to be certified insane, then he must be completely sane. In that case, the pilot must be told to fly. Yossarian, like me, is dumbfounded as to how to argue with logic like that.
Another instance where we see how living by the system is totally moronic is when Yossarian utilizes one of his prized assets, a liver condition, to receive extra amounts of fruit. When the mess officer, a completely deranged pilot with no morals named Milo whom I have the utmost respect for, asks if the condition is bad, Yossarian answers that it is just bad enough. In actuality, it couldn't be better. After more prodding, Yossarian admits that he doesn't actually have a disease, just symptoms. Garnett-Fleischaker symptoms to be exact. When Milo asks if he should be careful about what he eats, our favorite cynic responds: "Very careful indeed, a good Garnett-Fleischaker syndrome isn't easy to come by, and I don't want to ruin mine by eating fruit." Huh? This is just one example of the kinds of points Heller is trying to put forth in his novel. Most people think from inside the square, blindly following the norm and never straying from its path. An enlightened few, however, come to realize that the norm makes no sense at all. To those special few that think outside of the square, like Yossarian (actually, in Yossarian's case, the square is so far away that it is a point in the horizon), they begin to rebel from society's expectations. Yossarian comes to realize that if he follows the whims of his superiors and peers, the Germans will kill him. If he doesn't, then his superiors and peers will kill him.
One big reason that I related to Catch-22 with such gusto was that I managed to draw many parallels with my life and the message Heller puts forth. In a world contaminated with religious wars between Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, and USA and extremist Muslim groups, this novel offered a startling amount of clarity. Why is there so much hate and ignorance in the world? Why don't the world leaders realize what kind of reaction war has on the generation that has to experience it? Catch-22 offers some sort of insight into the minds of those against war and violence. By reading it, you may be able to understand how I think. This novel, of course, goes a lot deeper than being only against war. As a teenager growing up in San Francisco, I have become disillusioned by the empty and shallow culture that has been stuffed down my throat. I have gravitated towards friends that realize that appearances and popularity aren't all that matter. Most people who know me realize that, although fitting into the social category of being popular, I don't believe in living MTV's version of adolescence. Similarly, I refuse to live my life by following the accepted norm. I would much rather, just like Yossarian, live life outside the square. Hey, it may be cold out here, but at least we get to see what life may be like living inside some other geometrical shape.
The movement was never quite a movement to begin with; more a ragged group of hopeless romantics and scoundrels united by vague quasi-Buddhistic concepts, potent sexism, Rimbaud-esque spontaneity, intellectual snobbery and a jazz tinged bohemianism.
Undoubtedly there are glimpses of utter genius; Ginsberg's Howl is a modern epic of immense scope and beauty, Burroughs's Naked Lunch, when read as a demented Joycean autobiographical collage is superb and several of Kerouac's journeys of travel and homoeroticism are worth accompanying him on.
Yet step beyond these early works and the myth begins to crumble.
Keroauc was the first to break. Petrified of the too-muchness of life he retired to the security of living with his mother and cut off all ties with the outside world. Sadly it was the beginning of a path that saw him compromise and reject all that he had stood for, stumbling into alcoholism and right wing conservatism. He emerged from his self-enforced exile on two notable occasions. One was on a talk show, bloated and bitter, where he drunkenly attacked and denounced all the youthful adventure and awe and passion the world had loved him for, in one of the saddest pieces of television footage. The second was when he was at a last party with his soul mate Neal Cassady and the young writer Ken Kesey; Keroauc, furious that someone intended to burn the stars and stripes, rescued the flag and left in acrimony. A disillusioned man he died when his cirrhotic liver could no longer function. He was found on his hands and knees vomiting blood, which he later drowned in after twenty-six transfusions.
Ginsberg never quite lived up to initial expectations, scribbling Kaddish and Death to Van Gogh's Ear in the shadow of Howl.
Burroughs's infamous queer, junkie, wife-killing William Tell and self-styled outlaw joined Ginsberg in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and released a series of gradually diminishing works, self-consciously avant garde and strangely devoid of any sense of humanity.
All three were safely assimilated into the mainstream by becoming characters in advertisements for large companies; Ginsberg did an ad for Gap and Burroughs, despite believing that advertising was a form of social control and materialism a destructive form of madness, did a Nike ad (both thus endorsing the beatific joys of sweatshops and third world slavery).
When Kerouac's turn to sell out and do a Gap ad came, he at least had the excuse of being dead. One beat writer (Ferlinghetti) somberly saw entering the academy and the advertisements as the last nail in the counterculture's coffin. This served to prove Marcuse's theory that the dominant capitalist mainstream has an enormous capacity to ingest its dissident elements thus defusing the danger of their message. The establishment did not swallow all of them however.
Neal Cassady ("the side burned hero of the Snowy West" -On the Road) continued on a path of exploration with LSD before one night wandering onto a deserted Mexican railroad, intending to walk fifteen miles to the next town. He fell asleep on the way, wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. The night was filled with frost and then rain and he was found the following morning beside the tracks in a hypothermic coma, and died in a hospital later that day. His last words were "Sixty-Four Thousand Nine Hundred and Twenty-Eight," supposedly how many railroad ties he had counted before his death. It leaves the conclusion that his fictional alter ego Dean Moriarty (On The Road) had asked so much of him that he had killed himself living up to the legend. It was burn out or sell out.
You are left with the feeling that this movement, so incandescent with genius at its birth, never became what it could have, should have been and eventually mutated into all that it had opposed. For every one of their libertarian masterpieces there are a thousand lesser works diluted of enthusiasm and imagination and for each of their glory years there are decades of silence or worse self-renunciation. Even those writers operating on the Beat fringe like Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson faded into lazy self-imposed obscurity after the magnificent One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Once it petrified the powers that be by being a libertarian and radical counter-culture. What it became was an apathetic cosmetically-radical luxury for fashionable middle class students to entertain themselves whilst delaying their entry into the workforce.
The thing with the Beats is that it shouldn't matter if they are not all they are cracked up to be, writers rarely are, and the movement could through its eventual self destruction appear a glorious disaster, a literary James Dean that flickered out in the midst of some youthful passion. Where it becomes a problem is when their self-mythologizing eclipses greater literary talents. One of those lurking in their shadows goes by the name of Richard Brautigan.
Brautigan was an outsider amongst a gallery of outsiders and was possibly the most remarkable of the lot. And the shocking thing is his works, almost ceased to exist.
There have been many cases when the world has or almost has been deprived of important literary works. Kafka wished for his entire output to be destroyed as he wasted away with tuberculosis, thankfully a friend, who covertly went against his wishes, preserved them. Others were not so fortunate. Byron's journals were burnt for fear of their explosive content; namely admission of the act of sodomy at the time carried the death penalty. Sylvia Plath's final diary documenting her decline into depression and suicide was destroyed by her ex husband Ted Hughes in an act that to this day threatens to cause riots and effigy burning amongst her cult of admirers. And in an act of literary crime the works of Richard Brautigan remained unpublished since the sixties. You could walk into a bookstore and find the complete ramblings of the other Beats clogging up the shelves and yet searching for Brautigan was like rummaging for the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Thankfully the publishing press Rebel Inc. realized the insanity of this neglect and resurrected his work. It is not difficult to see what is so remarkable about his writing. There is a cool obscurity about him, like a book version of the Velvet Underground or the Beta Band; all the more overwhelming because few people know of it. People horde knowledge of him and ration it out to those whom they think are worthy, operating like a guild of alchemists, possessors of secret powerful knowledge. It is the stuff of knowing glances, winks and Masonic handshakes. I cannot say that he doesn't deserve mainstream recognition, rather the mainstream doesn't deserve him for he eclipses it.
He writes of apparent non-events. It aspires not to be a manifesto or a treatise but simply enjoyable stories that are close to life. This is something I envy of him. His lack of pretension makes his work all the more profound than those who proclaim brilliance, those that shout it from the rooftops. He trusts his readers enough to tell them a story rather than to preach or teach. In the Confederate General of Big Sur he mentions a wealth of other writers i.e. Nietzsche, Babel, Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller- not in the belief that he is educating the reader but that he is suggesting sublime paths that the reader might consi der taking. Sometimes he writes so emphatically and with such trust that rather than reading the book seems to talk, to develop a dialogue with the reader.
In his introduction to the Confederate General Duncan McLean comments, "I don't know much about Richard Brautigan as a person. In fact I think I only know one thing about him and I wish I didn't know it." This of course is the fact that Brautigan killed himself in the early 1980s with a .44 caliber gun in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other. Why the act is so unthinkable is because it goes seemingly unannounced, where others gave hints, clues to suggest they were toying with the idea, Brautigan does not. There are no "to be or not to be" questions pondered here. A reader, blissfully ignorant to the fact he killed himself, would probably think he was still living a life of elderly hedonism out in the Mojave Desert or in the backwoods of New Orleans. Suicide is unthinkable for one reason because his books are filled to the brim with humor. From the unlikeliest of sources he conjures images of missing eyebrows, a symphony of frogs that are only silenced by the cry "Campbell's Soup", the incompatibility of the Bible with electricity and the remarkable figure of Lee Mellon. It should be remembered that the border between comedy and tragedy is as difficult to define as the borders of territories at sea or in deserts. Comedy is best when it is self-deprecating, when it allows us to laugh at our fears and anxieties but it does not, cannot remove them. Like all other intoxications humour is a distraction, a temporary reprieve from the unbearable. The private lives of the world's greatest comedians are enough to remind us of the fact that primates grin when they are petrified and as a desperate attempt to defuse dangerous, traumatic situations.
Another reason why it is so hard to believe he killed himself is that his outlook on life is not bleak or nihilistic but rather is life affirming, a celebration of all that makes life worth living; sex, friendship, intoxication in all the forms sung by Baudelaire. This is constantly reiterated in his work, which like all real "magic realist" works, hints at the immense potentials of life and the extraordinary that lies beneath the mundane. Writing of impossible imagination and stunning beauty is often juxtaposed with events of the most everyday, the way epiphanies of beauty occur in life; the Southern accent that reads German philosophers and insists on quiet "when a man reads the Russians", the daring cavalry attacks on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a hand resting on the crack of an ass like a bird on the branch of a tree, a bird that sings when you are impotent. Reading Brautigan, a stoner with the soul of Blake or Whitman, reminds you of the Oscar Wilde quote that seems to define Magic Realism: "We are all in the gutter but some of us are watching the stars".
Some examples are worth simply reading without commentary:
Night was coming in, borrowing the light. It had started borrowing just a few cents worth of light but now it was borrowing thousands of dollars worth of light every second. The light would soon be gone, the bank closed, the tellers unemployed, the bank president a suicide.
The whiskey went well. I wish I could have offered the stars a drink. Looking down upon mortals, they probably need a drink from time to time, certainly on a night like this. We got drunk."
What a wonderful sense of distortion Lee Mellon had. Finish that slice of bread. That thing I was holding in my hand never had anything to do with a slice of bread. I put my hammer and chisel aside and we went up to the truck.
And even though the Brautigan mentality to women is occasionally cliched he avoids the traditional Beat means to an end/sperm receptacle school of thought and displays a brave and haunting romanticism. "We went away with each other like small republics to join the United Nations" and "her lips parted and I ran my fingers gently along her teeth and touched the sleeping tip of her tongue. I felt like a musician touching a darkened piano" -- for anyone who has ever been in love such lines are almost painfully beautiful.
It is easy to be hypnotized and delighted by the sad delirious beauty of Brautigan's writing. And yet there are darker undercurrents, as there always are in humour that aspires to truth and knowledge. The book is littered with jokes; indeed it's one of the only books to make me wake myself up laughing, having remembered some line mid-dream. And yet when the book is finished there is one scene, one chilling instant that haunts the reader; the moment when bugs stare out at the narrator from a burning log. It is at this point that Brautigan's real life connects like electricity to the book. The drinking binges, the electro-shock therapy, his refusal to utter a single word to his mother, his need for "some tranquility . . . a little more distance between the frustrations and agonies in my life" hidden through the book like elements in the air, at this point make themselves known.
Duncan McLean in his introduction to the work suggests, as an explanation of his suicide, that the bugs are Brautigan looking out at us, his readers. I'd go further and say the insects represent all of us, Brautigan's vision of a doomed humanity living on borrowed time. This is not to say that this is a hopeless tragedy rather we are liberated in a sense as our actions and relationships are all the more profound and precious because we are running out of time. Life ends in tragedy so the rest of it might as well be a comedy for there is nothing to lose. And I bet those bugs scuttling around that burning log, staring out at Brautigan, have no other options than to tell each other jokes.
At the age of 22, he discovered modern art and began to paint. His playful, colorful ironic pastiches instantly gained notice, and he began balancing a career as a serious artist with his love of music. One of his earliest works to gain notice was an evocative, blurry testament to American history, "Washington Crossing the Delaware", which caused a sensation in 1953. As his career as a painter thrived, he became an increasinly familiar face within the subterranean social circuits of Greenwich Village, San Francisco, Paris and elsewhere, hanging out with painters like Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning and soon-to-be-legendary writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In 1959 he joined Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and David Amram to star as "Milo", the married railroad brakeman based on Neal Cassady, in the film "Pull My Daisy".
Rivers was considered one of the forerunners of the pop art movement in the 60s, especially in his use of humor and his light, colorful touch. In his later decades he became more and more playful and experimental, leaving behind the style-conscious seriousness of the 70s/80s/90s art scenes to express himself loudly, clearly and with much controversy in works like "History of Matzo: the Story of the Jews", an epic series that combined the ethereal beauty of Chagall with the commonplace style of Lichtenstein or Warhol. One of his works, "Dutch Masters and Cigars II", a takeoff on the famous cigar box, can be seen in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.
Larry Rivers died three days before his 79th birthday, on August 14, 2002. I called David Amram when I heard the news, and here's what David told me:
"When I was in Paris after I left the army, the painter Joan Mitchell told me when I came back to New York I had to look up the sax player and painter Larry Rivers. She said I'd find him at the Cedar Tavern, so I went to the Cedar Tavern and they told me Larry was playing the Monday Night Jam Session that night at the 125 Club in Harlem. So I went up to the 125 Club, and there was Larry wailing away on his sax. We played together, and when the MC was thanking everybody for coming, Larry was still playing, all by himself. The crowd began to leave and they started putting up chairs, but Larry was still playing. Then Steve Pulliam, the trombonist, who was in charge of the jam session, turned to me as Larry continued to play alone and said 'Man, your blue-eyed soul brother has a lot of heart.'
"Larry finally stopped playing and we rode downtown on the subway together. We talked about music, and he told me he was working on something, but that he couldn't get it right. We played together often from that time on. One day I went into the Museum of Modern Art and saw "Washington Crossing the Delaware", painted by Larry Rivers. I saw him at the Cedar Tavern a few nights later and said to him, 'Larry, I'd heard you were a sax player and a painter, but you never told me that painting was really your thing.' Larry said, 'You never asked.'
"He was a wonderful artist in all mediums and he loved playing music. The last time we played together was at Terry Southern's memorial service. He sang 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' and played 'Blue Monk.'
"When we made 'Pull My Daisy', it was three weeks of crazed fun. This movie was filmed as a silent movie, and we overdubbed music later. I had the great alto master Sahib Shihab play saxophone on the soundtrack as Larry and I appeared to play music on the screen, making it appear as if we were playing the music. When Larry heard Sahib's fantastic solo later, he told me, 'David, I never sounded so good.'
"He had a lot of spirit, and continued to be productive as an artist and a real individual. I'll miss him a lot."
Reading Farina's Been Down So Long Looks Like Up to me one may find it reminiscent to Joyce's Ulysses. Farina's prose rolls and jerks from word to word, staggering at times like the town drunkard and hovering at times like an angel in heaven. This is what some may consider the downfall of his writing, I must admit that it took me several readings to understand it fully but after I did I appreciated it even more.
Been Down So Long Looks like up to me is the story of a rogue college student during the merge from the Beat generation into the Love Generation, the sixties, and his quest for love and its meaning. In doing so he has run-ins with the police, local drug dealers, revolutionists in Cuba, and activists at college.
When I hear of influential authors of the epoch coined "the Beat Generation" (Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc.) I wonder why Farina is not on the top of the list. Been Down so Long is the beat generation encapsulated inside a book about an inch thick. It has all the makings; the wondering, rebellion, drug use, etc.
Having only a cult status among the literary community Been Down So Long deserves more recognition. Readers who want to read an excellent book should do anything (steal, borrow, buy) to get their hands on this book.
When I first picked up this book I was not an avid reader but after completing it I realized that reading was perhaps the void that I felt in my life. I can say personally that this book changed my life, for better or worse.
The long, strange trip came to an end for Ken Elton Kesey at 3:45 AM Saturday, November 10th, 2001, after 66 years and a few hundred lifetimes on this planet.
Ken was a great friend to my father, Neal Cassady, and almost a second father to me after Neal died in 1968 when I was 16 years old. Kesey was one of the kindest and wisest men I've ever known, and he was one of my biggest heroes and mentors starting soon after he met Neal in the early '60s, a feeling which continues in me to this day. The pearls of wisdom that he shared with me and others around him are too numerous to count, but thankfully he left a great legacy in his body of work that will last forever.
Neal always wanted to be a provider to his family, and little did he know that much of that provision would be accomplished posthumously through doors that were opened to me because of his famous friends like Kesey and the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia being another of my heroes from about 1965 on).
Much to the worry of my mother, Kesey and Neal would come collect my sister and me at high school, giving the authorities some song and dance about dentist appointments or whatever, and they'd whisk us away to see the Dead play at some local high school prom dance, just after the Dead changed their name from the Warlocks. Some fond, early memories there. I recall once being called to the school office, not knowing what I had done to deserve what was surely going to be trouble from the evil principle, only to open the door and see Neal and Ken dressed in American flag jumpsuits complete with day-glo red Beatle boots and silly hats. The principle looked confused and said to me "this man claims to be your father!" He looked like he thought the circus was in town.
My mother needn't have worried. When I'd try to sniff the smoke from the reefers being passed around the car, Dad would admonish the passengers "no dope for the kid!" Kesey knew I was disappointed, but he always honored Neal's request in those early days.
After Neal's death Kesey would go out of his way to look us up when he was in the Bay Area, and he showed up unannounced at my wedding in November of 1975 on his way back from Egypt, while writing a piece for Rolling Stone. That was one heck of a party. I still have pictures of him holding my then-3-month-old son, Jamie, and beaming like a proud godfather.
Another warm memory was backstage at a Dead show in Eugene when Kesey's fellow prankster Zonker ceremoniously presented me with one of 2 railroad spikes that the Dead's roadie Ramrod, while on a sacred pilgrimage, had extracted from the tracks where Neal died in Mexico. And again when Kesey and Ken Babbs bequeathed Neal's black and white stripped shirt to me that he had worn on the bus trip to New York in 1964, this time during a show we did at the Fillmore in 1997 before bringing the bus to Cleveland, where it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ken called and asked if I would drive "Further" into Ohio "because Neal can't make it this trip." Although veteran Prankster driver and mechanic George Walker did the actual driving, Kesey's heart was in the right place. That road trip was surpassed only by the 4-week tour of the UK in 1999, sponsored by London's Channel Four studios. Traveling with Ken in close quarters for that long really made for a lasting bond between us, and he was at his peak as a performer. It was fun for me to play guitar behind his harmonica and the Thunder Machine. I last saw him as we said our goodbyes at SFO after that incredible journey, and I was sad to have not been able to do so again before last Saturday.
Ken Kesey was a great teacher and a beautiful soul, and he will be missed by all that his magic touched.
(I found these pictures of me at the wheel of the bus, and me with Ken, from San Francisco, April 28, 1997, just before the trip to Cleveland. That night was the "Psychedelic Era Reunion Party" (P.E.R.P.) at the old Fillmore Auditorium, what a gas. All the usual suspects from the '60s were there.)
After that I found and read 'Cat's Cradle', 'God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater', 'Welcome to the Monkey House', and 'Slaughterhouse-Five'. Like a lot of other high school and college kids at the time, I had become a Vonnegut fan. Here was a writer, judging by the evidence in his books, who was about the same age as my parents. But what a difference! He seemed to understand exactly what was going on in the world and what my attitudes were toward God, country and authority. And he kept making me laugh.
The facts of Vonnegut's life are familiar to many of his readers. Most of the biographical details are revealed in his novels, in his three books of essays, speeches and occasional pieces, or in his many interviews, collected in 'Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut'. (A good Vonnegut timeline and bibliography are online at The Most Comprehensive Vonnegut Site in the Cosmos, at http://www.duke.edu/~crh4/vonnegut/vonnegut.html).
Kurt was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, the third child of a prominent architect father and a rich and brilliant but mentally unbalanced mother. When the Great Depression came along the family's financial situation suffered drastically, but Kurt was still able to attend Cornell University, where he studied chemistry and wrote for the school paper. In 1943 he quit school to enlist in the Army. He was a Private in the infantry, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, became a prisoner of war and survived the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden.
After the War he married his high school sweetheart, Jane Cox, and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago. He studied anthropology but his Masters thesis was rejected and he left without a degree. In 1947 Kurt and Jane moved to Schenectady, New York and Kurt took a job as a publicist at General Electric. His first novel, 'Player Piano' (1952), would parody the corporate world of G. E. and Schenectady. He began writing short stories which he sold to magazines such as "Collier's" and "Saturday Evening Post". The best of these stories were collected in 'Canary in a Cat House' (1961) and 'Welcome to the Monkey House' (1968), essentially the same book.
Encouraged by his success as a writer, Vonnegut quit his job at G. E. and moved with wife and children to West Barnstable, Massachusetts. This is where he wrote his great early novels: 'The Sirens of Titan' (1959), 'Mother Night' (1961), 'Cat's Cradle' (1963), and 'God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater' (1965). On the strength of these books he was offered a teaching position at the prestigious University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. He taught there during the 1965/1966 academic year. After his stint in Iowa, Vonnegut received a Guggenheim Fellowship, visited Germany, and completed the book that remains his masterpiece, his novel about the fire-bombing of Dresden, 'Slaughterhouse-Five'(1969).
Amidst the commercial and critical success of 'Slaughterhouse-Five', and with their children mostly grown and on their own, Kurt and Jane separated. Kurt moved by himself to Manhattan. He wrote a play, 'Happy Birthday Wanda June', which played with some success off-Broadway. In 1971 he taught Creative Writing at Harvard and became involved with photographer Jill Krementz, whom he would later marry. Also in that year the University of Chicago belatedly awarded him a Masters degree, citing the contribution of 'Cat's Cradle' to the field of cultural anthropology. 1972 saw the public television broadcast of 'Between Time and Timbuktu', a documentary about Vonnegut and his fiction, and in 1973 a movie of 'Slaughterhouse-Five' debuted.
In 1974 a new Vonnegut novel was out and I read it--'Breakfast of Champions'. In that novel Vonnegut announced the end of his career as a writer. "I am approaching my fiftieth birthday," he wrote. "I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career."
Maybe I was naive, but I believed him. I don't remember being greatly disappointed. In the mid-1970s everyone was going to achieve enlightenment, or at least higher consciousness. At the time I read 'Breakfast of Champions', I was also reading a book called 'The Master Game', which identified and explained various paths to permanent bliss. It seemed to me that was what Vonnegut was opting for, that compared to achieving true enlightenment the writing of novels was small potatoes.
I guess I was reading too much in, or the times changed, or the enlightenment didn't take, because in the years that followed Vonnegut kept writing and publishing novels: 'Slapstick' (1976), 'Jailbird' (1979), and 'Deadeye Dick' (1982). I read the first of these, took a look at the other two, and did not think they were on par with his earlier work. Not only was I somewhat disappointed that he had gone back on his promise to retire from writing, but the quality of his work seemed to have reversed course.
Who knows? Maybe he was in a mid-career slump. At any rate he kept writing. 'Galapagos' was published in 1985, followed by 'Bluebeard' in 1987. These novels were not as wildly inventive as his early work, or as artful as 'Slaughterhouse-Five', but they were more learned, more assured. I felt like Vonnegut was back on track, that he was once again doing work almost equal to his brilliant early novels.
'Galapagos' was followed by 'Hocus Pocus' (1990). Then there was a gap of some years before his next "last" novel, 'Timequake' (1997). Vonnegut's latest publications, both in 1999, were a second collection of early short stories, 'Bagombo Snuff Box', for which he wrote a very amusing Introduction, and 'God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian', a collection of insightful and imaginative pieces that he wrote for short spots on New York radio station WNYC.
Vonnegut spent the 2000/2001 academic year teaching writing at Smith College, and began work on his next "last" novel, 'If God Were Alive Today'. He has pursued a late career as a visual artist with shows at several New York galleries. (For more information on his career as a visual artist visit the Official Website of Kurt Vonnegut at http://www.vonnegut.com.) Two more of his novels, 'Mother Night' and 'Breakfast of Champions', have been made into movies and he has had cameo roles in both. He continues to speak publicly on occasion, most recently at the University of Iowa and at the Chicago Public Library. (Robert Weide, who scripted and produced 'Mother Night', is making a documentary about Vonnegut. For more about it check his website at http://www.duckprods.com.)
Vonnegut still smokes Pall Malls, a longtime addiction. You may remember hearing his name in the news when he was hospitalized for smoke inhalation after a cigarette started a fire in his apartment. He recovered fully and remains active and in reasonably good health. He and Jill Krementz divide their time primarily between a home on Long Island and a Manhattan apartment. They were on Long Island when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred. A friend who spoke to Kurt that day said he seemed relat ively unfazed, having lived through much worse in Dresden. His principal comment was: "With all the money the CIA spends on intelligence gathering, you'd think they could recruit one Muslim."
So here it is the 21st century already. Somehow I have gotten to be 50 years old, the same age Vonnegut was when he first retired from writing. Mr. Vonnegut is closing in on his 80th birthday. Neither one of us, as far as I can tell, has yet achieved true enlightenment, but he is still writing and I am still laughing out loud when I read his books. Recently I have been rereading his novels, partly for fun and laughs, partly to see if his work is really as good as I first thought it was. There's a short answer to that one: Yes, it is.
I had it in my mind that one of the reasons I liked Vonnegut was that he constructed his books of short chapters. I found out that isn't always true. 'Sirens of Titan' has only 12 chapters. 'Cat's Cradle', on the other hand, has 127. What I did notice in both of these books and in his others, is that he usually writes in short units with lots of space breaks between them. Vonnegut himself has said: "My books are essentially mosaics, thousands and thousands of tiny little chips all glued together, and each chip is this thing I learned to do-- this thing I learned to make as a child--which is a little joke."
His great strength at all times is his sense of humor, but life is not just a joke to Vonnegut. At bottom there is great sadness, poignancy, beauty and wonder. He deals with moral and existential questions. Who are we? Why are we here? How should we behave toward one another? The first two questions are most often treated playfully and given a great deal of leeway. They may not be answerable, but it's fun to try. The third question receives some very definite answers. We should treat each other with kindness and common courtesy. We should stop sending children to kill and be killed in wars. We should find ways to break down barriers of class and race. We should start paying attention to preserving our planet for future generations.
A major theme in Vonnegut's novels is the power of Fate in human affairs, the ways in which seemingly random and unimportant actions have significance when the larger picture is seen. In 'Sirens of Titan' most of human history has been an attempt to get a small spaceship part to a stranded traveler on Titan. In 'Galapagos', genetic and other "accidents" lead to the future evolution of the human race. In 'Hocus Pocus', the Elders of Tralfamadore are using the planet Earth in a series of experiments designed to create a virus that can survive space travel. Vonnegut's fondness for this theme is traceable to a passage at the beginning of Thomas Wolfe's 'Look Homeward, Angel', a book Vonnegut says he read "when I was supposed to," at the age of 18. Wolfe writes of "the dark miracle of chance that makes new magic in a dusty world," and says that "each moment is a window on all time." Vonnegut pays tribute to Wolfe in 'Cat's Cradle', when the narrator's first vin-dit, a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all things, is precipitated by an encounter with a stone angel in a tombstone salesroom.
My friend Attila Gyenis once asked Vonnegut why he was so popular. Vonnegut said it was because he didn't use semi-colons. A nice one-liner, but it points to the fact that Vonnegut makes a conscious effort to be accessible, not academic, elitist or highbrow. His books read smoothly and quickly. He can be erudite and sophisticated, but he never writes down to his audience, rather he includes them in. The reader sees the conspiratorial wink and feels included in the big in-joke. Parody, satire and irony are prime weapons in his arsenal. (If a pacifist can be said to have an arsenal.) He also juxtaposes high and low culture to comedic effect, and chooses character names that sound like they're out of W. C. Fields movies -- Winston Niles Rumfoord, Ransom K. Fern, Philboyd Studge. The net result is that the reader is amused, delighted and edified. We get the idea that the writer is having a great deal of fun writing the book. And that fun is contagious. The reader catches it.
Many American novelists, as they grow older, seem to lose their way, done in by fame or alcohol, or simply with nothing left to say. Vonnegut has had his own struggles with depression and alcohol, but he has kept writing and has seemed to grow kinder and wiser with age. His continuing popularity and influence are attested to by the fact that all of his books remain in print. He is as likely to be the favorite author of a college student in 2001 as he was in 1969, and a growing number of their professors are paying serious attention to his work.
At this late stage in his career I believe Kurt Vonnegut deserves a Nobel Prize for literature. He deserves the dynamite money. He has, in his own way and in his own time, been as great a writer as William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway. He has produced a remarkable body of work ranging over half a century in time. He has spoken unstintingly for peace and kindness and simple human decency and he has done so with humor and sympathy and more than a little art.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. You have made the world a better place. You have enriched and nourished our minds and hearts and souls. Thank you for Bokonon and Boko-maru, for Kilgore Trout, Tralfamadore and so much more. Thank you for fathering an extended family of Vonnegut readers, and for making it possible to add to the family simply by handing someone a book, saying, "Here, I think you'll like this one."
Kurt Vonnegut's books were also popular among young people in the 60s and 70s. Though known for his black humor, Vonnegut envisioned the possibility of a better, more humane society. One character in particular pops up recurrently in his novels, a character who seems to stand for perseverance and hope in spite of everything. That character is the old science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout.
In Bob Dylan's song, 'Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,' the trout swims in again:
It's a one-track town, just brown, and a breeze, too,
Pack up the meat, sweet, we're headin' out
For Wichita in a pile of fruit
Get the loot, don't be slow, we're gonna catch a trout
Get the loot, don't be slow, we're gonna catch a trout
Get the loot, don't be slow, we're gonna catch a trout
Why trout? Why not? We live in a world of symbols.
Yesterday I took two 11-year-old boys trout fishing. We fished the ponds at Mill Creek Park above Talmage. We used worms and salmon eggs and power bait but we did not catch any fish. Next time though, we're gonna catch a trout. Why trout? Why not? We live in a world of symbols.
In Watermelon Sugar (Dell Publishing, 1968)
In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.
Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out.
I live in a shack near iDEATH. I can see iDEATH out the window. It is beautiful. I can also see it with my eyes closed and touch it. Right now it is cold and turns like something in the hand of a child. I do not know what that thing could be.
There is a delicate balance in iDEATH. It suits us.
Winesburg, Ohio (Viking Press, 1972. Original copyright 1919.)
The Book of the Grotesque
The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.
Quite a fuss was made about the matter. The carpenter, who had been a soldier in the Civil War, came into the writer's room and sat down to talk of building a platform for the purpose of raising the bed. The writer had cigars lying about and the carpenter smoked.
Rootabaga Stories (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. (Original copyright 1922.)
How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country
Gimme the Ax lived in a house where everything is the same as it always was.
"The chimney sits on top of the house and lets the smoke out," said Gimme the Ax. "The doorknobs open the doors. The windows are always either open or shut. We are always either upstairs or downstairs in this house. Everything is the same as it always was."
So he decided to let his children name themselves.
"The first words they speak as soon as they learn to make words shall be their names," he said. "They shall name themselves."
No earthshattering conclusions to draw here. I think there are interesting similarities in tone, rhythm and content in the three books. I think Brautigan probably read Sherwood Anderson and of course he read Hemingway who was influenced by Anderson. I'm not sure if Brautigan read Sandburg or knew of his Rootabaga Stories, but he certainly would have been at home in the Rootabaga Country.
Recently I reread two of Richard Brautigan's poetry books, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt. I had been reading Baudelaire and thought I remembered Brautigan using Baudelaire in his poems. Sure enough, "The Galilee Hitch-Hiker" section of Pill is comprised of nine poems involving Baudelaire. Here's one:
The American Hotel
Baudelaire was sitting
in a doorway with a wino
on San Francisco's skidrow.
The wino was a million
years old and could remember
Baudelaire and the wino
were drinking Petri Muscatel.
"One must always be drunk,"
"I live in the American Hotel,"
said the wino. "And I can
"Be you drunken ceaselessly,"
I don't think Brautigan was a great poet. In fact his "poems," like his "short stories" and his "novels," are often not really poems, short stories and novels at all. They are all "Brautigans", as the writer W. P. Kinsella has pointed out. Like Kerouac said, "Something that you feel will find its own form."
Brautigan saw, felt and thought in his own unique way and let his scribblings find their own forms. The great virtue of his writing in these two volumes is that it is so readable. You can go through both books in two or three hours. This virtue can also be a vice in that some of the "poems" are throwaway pieces, little more than jottings and doodles. But when he hits it, Brautigan is just great.
The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster is the earlier and, in my opinion, the better of the two books. Some of the poems were written as early as 1958. It's amazing to see Brautigan at this point already anticipating the acid goofiness of the next decade, and even the computer mania of the ones after that. Here's the first poem from the book:
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Pas mal! It can also be kind of sad to read these poems, knowing that Brautigan ended as he did, an alcoholic egomaniac, a suicide. I read some of these funny and whimsical Brautigans and think how sad it is that his life took the direction it did. Here's one that hit me that way:
Our Beautiful West Coast Thing
We are a coast people
There is nothing but ocean out beyond us.
-- Jack Spicer
I sit here dreaming
long thoughts of California
at the end of a November day
below a cloudy twilight
near the Pacific
listening to The Mamas and The Papas
singing a song about breaking
somebody's heart and digging it!
I think I'll get up
and dance around the room.
Here I go!
How can you not like a guy who writes like that. Or how about this one:
There are three quail in a cage next door,
and they are the sweet delight of our mornings,
calling to us like small frosted cakes:
but at night they drive our God-damn cat Jake crazy.
They run around that cage like pinballs
as he stands out there,
smelling their asses through the wire.
Brautigan wrote a lot of love poems. Pill is dedicated to a woman named Marcia Pacaud and a lot of the poems are about her. Here's one that uses another of Brautigan's off-the-wall similes:
I Feel Horrible. She Doesn't
I feel horrible. She doesn't
love me and I wander around
the house like sewing machine
that's just finished sewing
a turd to a garbage can lid.
Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt came out a couple of years after Pill. It has quite a few more throwaway pieces, indicating that Brautigan had already started to fall off the beam. But it still has a number that I like and that make me laugh, like:
The Memoirs of Jesse James
I remember all those thousands of hours
that I spent in grade school watching the clock,
waiting for recess or lunch or to go home.
Waiting: for anything but school.
My teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James
for all the time they stole from me.
Forsaken, fucking in the cold,
eating each other, lost, runny noses,
complaining all the time like so
many people that we know.
I recommend these books to anyone who has not read Brautigan. It's a treat to read them for the first time. And if you read them years ago it's a treat to reread them and compare your reactions now with then, to compare your self now with then.
Try this: just go through and read the titles. If you don't laugh then maybe these books aren't for you.
Reading tip: Raymond Carver is a famous short story writer -- Robert Altman's movie Short Cuts is based on his work -- and even though he comes highly recommended by a lot of people whose opinions I respect, I have never been able to get into his stories. But the other day after reading Brautigan's poetry I picked up a Raymond Carver book and voila! Somehow the Brautigan had left my brainwaves in just the right shape to appreciate Carver. Though very different in style and content, they have a similar rainy Pacific Northwest sensibility. So if you have to read Carver, read Brautigan first. They go together like cheesecake and coffee.