Mickey Hess is an English professor at Rider University and the author of Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory and a bunch of books about hip hop.
The best thing I read in 2008 was Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. It is one of my favorite books that begin with a sombrero falling to earth from outer space, and it’s one of those books that makes you feel kind of stupid for not having been reading this author all of your life.
With the resurgence of interest in Donald Barthelme, people seem to have forgotten his West Coast contemporary, Richard Brautigan, who was doing similar experiments with prose and form out in California. Or it may not be that people have forgotten to include Brautigan among the pantheon of great 20th-century literary experimenters so much as he never really was included.
Brautigan had the mixed luck of becoming a countercultural hero and seeing his fame peak too soon. Someone called him the last of the Beats, and his popularity among the hippies (whom truckers hated) led to truck stops not stocking his novels, which led to the literary establishment thumbing its nose at his stories. This is the way it works.
Brautigan’s style of humor, while it made him a star among hippies, did not see the same response from the critics as Bartheleme or Kurt Vonnegut, two other writers whom I’d chisel into my literary Mount Rushmore. Critics, for some reason, seemed to think that Brautigan’s writing was something like jacking off.
Brautigan jokes about being a hack in his short story “1/3, 1/3, 1/3,” in which a novelist who can’t write teams up with a typist who can’t type and an editor who can’t spell. The story contains one of the best lines ever in a short story: “You sur like veel cutlets don’t you Maybel said she was
holding holding her pensil up her mowth.” It ends with the three of them “sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.” Man.
Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel was published in 1976, simultaneously in Japan and America. Brautigan dedicates the book to Junichiro Tanizaki, and he draws from the terse prose style and short chapters employed by Tanizaki in The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man. Around this same point in his career, Brautigan wrote novels in a series of different weird genres: a gothic western, an historical romance, and a perverse mystery. They’re all good books, but they don’t all feature sombreros.
Sombrero Fallout begins with a sombrero falling from the sky onto the Main Street of a small American town. Then, the very brief chapters alternate between the bizarre story of how the mayor and the townspeople deal with the sombrero (spoiler alert: they kill a librarian), and the heart-wrenching story of an American humorist who has broken up with his Japanese girlfriend, Yukiko.
Just as Kurt Vonnegut depicts Kilgore Trout’s gravestone in Breakfast of Champions, Brautigan offers an epitaph for his own alter-ego in Sombrero Fallout. The American humorist was expected to live longer than Brautigan did (he killed himself in 1984, twenty-five years too soon). As 2008 – the year I discovered Richard Brautigan – comes to a close, it seems fitting that he marked this upcoming year as his projected date of death:
Rest in Peace
He’s Not Jacking Off Anymore