He had spent much of his last year in Japan. In Japan they still treated him with respect. In Japan Richard Brautigan was still sensei, “great teacher,” the poet-novelist-humorist who wrote Trout Fishing in America, A Confederate General from Big Sur, Revenge of the Lawn and a score of other works that once had made him the mustachioed avatar of the ’60s, that once had seemed to define a time. That time, in America, was unexpectedly short. But in Japan the bonsai grace of his prose, his patient cultivation of a world alive in miniature, was not to be tossed lightly aside. And so he went there often.
Besides, he loved Asian women. The second of his two wives, Akiko, was Japanese, though the marriage had ended badly and he hadn’t bounced back from the loss. In Japan his reputation also assured him cut-rate hotel rooms. He often stayed in hotels and for someone who had been poor so long, a discount was something to consider. He felt at peace there in a way that eluded him in Bolinas, his hideaway just north of San Francisco, or at his streamside home in Montana’s Paradise Valley, where he loved to fish, even in the snow. His affinity for Japan showed in his work, like 1980’s The Tokyo-Montana Express, which capsulized the two poles of his wandering. His quintessentialy American prose somehow brought a Far Eastern precision—haiku compression—to the vastness of his Wild West.
When he returned from Japan last spring, though, to some he seemed changed. He hung around Cho-Cho’s, a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco, talking with its erudite owner, his friend James Sakata, 60. He had been drinking heavily. Then he decided to go up to Bolinas to his house near the Pacific. He was going to be alone, and he asked Sakata if he could borrow a gun. Nothing strange in that. Brautigan loved guns. He once shot up his house in Montana, then framed a few of the bullet holes and labeled the composition Shootout at the O.K. Kitchen. He blasted away in his backyard so often that friend, neighbor and fellow novelist Tom McGuane called his 40 acres “Lead Disneyland.” Sakata lent him a .44-cal. Smith & Wesson.
Nobody heard from Brautigan for a long time. Nothing strange in that. He often just disappeared. Then he missed the opening of grouse-hunting season in Montana, an annual rite for pals like McGuane, actor Peter Fonda, artist Russell Chatham and writer William Hjortsberg, who had turned a small stretch of the Absaroka Mountains near Livingston into an unlikely outdoorsmen-artists’ colony. When letters started coming back unopened, friends checked his place in Bolinas. They found his body, four months short of his 50th birthday and some five weeks dead of a single gunshot wound to the head. The writer who often worked obsessively for 12-hour stints didn’t leave a note.
So there was only speculation and memory. Friends talked about his openhanded generosity and his drunken boorishness, his gentleness and the violence that haunted him, his yin and his yang. “Richard was one of the most truly eccentric individuals I have ever met,” says Hjortsberg. “He was a genuine Bohemian.” His vision was unique, so humorous, so balanced-amid-tumult that at the ragged end of the 1960s, a rebellious generation thought they saw the world through his eyes. Trout Fishing sold two million copies. Becky Fonda, Peter’s wife, remembers walking with him in San Francisco and being mobbed by fans after publication of that novel. “It was an onslaught,” she says. “We had to run for cover.” Brautigan loved it.
That high tide receded. In a 1980 review of Express the New York Times said he was “a longhair in his mid 40s, and across his habitually wistful good humor there now creep shadows of ennui and dullness.” His former agent, Helen Brann, said he cared more for his lost audience than the critics. “The fact that his readership was diminishing was what was breaking his heart,” she says. His last book, 1982’s So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, had sold only about 15,000 copies.
So the Wind now becomes Brautigan’s final return to his beginnings and the central traumas of his life. Born in Tacoma and desperately poor, he was shuttled from town to town throughout the Northwest. He once mentioned that one of his three stepfathers “would just thrash him and thrash him,” but Brautigan said little about his childhood. The protagonist of So the Wind is a troubled, neglected boy who accidentally shoots and kills his best friend. The novel opens with the boy’s obsessive wish to grab the bullet out of the air and push it back down the barrel and refasten it to the cartridge and put the shell back in its box with its “49 brother and sister bullets.” Would that such could be done—and that another strange twist were not so Brautiganesque. After Richard’s death his real father, whom he had never known, said he learned for the first time that the writer was his son. Before, Brautigan’s mother reportedly had denied his paternity. “I told him,” she said by one account, “that I found Richard in the gutter.”
Does that explain things? Where did he find his outrageous humor? His friends warn against summing up Brautigan too easily. “It’s not a case of ‘hot in the ’60s, can’t get arrested in the ’70s, dead in the ’80s,’ ” says novelist-pal Don Carpenter. “I think Richard was angry and out of money and goddamned if he was going to take a cut in pay. I think it was a coldly rational kind of act. I could hear him saying, ‘Everyone thought I was going to go down begging for my crust, but—’em. Now I don’t have to answer my telephone.’ ” He was that way. And he was also the way his beloved daughter lanthe, 24, remembers him. “He was so funny in the morning. He would do little tap dances and sing little songs. He would say, ‘One of us has to be the adult around here and it’s not going to be me.’ We had a lot of fun.” So long, sensei. Arigato, pardner.