“I began reading Richard Brautigan when I was 19 years old for the best reason I can imagine any teenage boy should begin reading Richard Brautigan: a beautiful, brown-haired girl said I should.

“I read Brautigan’s best-known work first – ‘Trout Fishing in America’ and ‘In Watermelon Sugar’ – as well as piles of his poems. Some have called Brautigan’s writing ‘light’ and ‘naïve’ as a way to diminish it, but I would more generously call it guileless and open-hearted. I kept reading, and eventually discovered his most moving and accomplished work: his short story collection ‘Revenge of the Lawn’ and his best novel, ‘The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966.’ Soon, I’d read everything Brautigan published.

“Recently, I read ‘You Can’t Catch Death,’ the short memoir by Ianthe Brautigan, the author’s only child. It took my breath away. Despite the melancholy and pain, the book arrives, like so much of her father’s writing, at light and love.

“After moving to San Francisco from the Pacific Northwest in the late 1950s, Richard Brautigan became well-known in the city’s growing countercultural scene; he often gave away his small books of poetry, such as ‘Please Plant This Book,’ which consisted of poems printed on eight packets of flower and vegetable seeds. By the late 1960s, he was world-renowned and wealthy due in large part to the success of ‘Trout Fishing in America.’ And then, with surprising swiftness, Brautigan’s literary light fell out of favor in the late 1970s. In 1984, cut off from family and friends Brautigan shot himself. He was 49; his daughter was 24. His body went undiscovered for more than a month.

“Brautigan was a famously complex man who struggled with alcohol addiction on grand levels. He was known for being eccentric, erratic and, at his worst, violent – but also for being outrageously generous. He was damaged by the tragedies of his childhood, which included a teenage diagnosis for paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression; he was repeatedly subjected to electroconvulsive treatments.

“Ianthe Brautigan’s story of her father’s life – told in just 200 pages written in short, impressionistic chapters – admirably echoes her father’s writing: It asks us if we can, despite all the hurt and pain, go on being good in this world and still find goodness in it. ‘You Can’t Catch Death’ makes a case for further understanding ourselves by at least attempting to understand more deeply those we often want to know better but who remain so incomprehensible: our parents; Brautigan dedicated the book, subtitled ‘A Daughter’s Memoir,’ to her own daughter. Like her father, she reaches for the unknowable.

“Two years ago, while driving south from Santa Rosa to San Francisco, I made a detour off coast-hugging Highway 1 to visit the small town of Bolinas. In the little enclave of hippiedom, I found the house where Richard Brautigan took his life, and I stood in the driveway. Almost immediately, I was sorry I’d done it. The pain of his final days felt too unbearable to contemplate. ‘It’s strange how the simple things in life go on,’ Brautigan once wrote, ‘while we become difficult.’ — JOSH BODWELL, editorial director at Godine/Black Sparrow Press and the former director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance


Mainers, please email to tell us about the book on your bedside table right now. In a few sentences, describe the book and be sure to tell us what drew you to it. With the path of the pandemic again uncertain, we especially want to hear what you are reading in these turbulent times and why. Send your selection to [email protected], and we may use it as a future Bedside Table.


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