On Lawrence Wright’s “The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan” (Rolling Stone, April 1985)
by Meagan Flynn
Synopsis: Twentieth century poet and novelist Richard Brautigan’s claim to fame was his first novel, Trout Fishing in America, in 1967. From there, following a brief stint of fame, his life spun out of his grip with heavy drinking and his inability to stay in love with any of his wives. Friends say alcoholism and women killed him, but Richard Brautigan was a little more complicated than that.
When I met with Lawrence Wright last week, I asked him about how his writing style had changed over the years—there is a noticeable difference between his New Yorker stories now and his Rolling Stone material in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But he told me that, at The New Yorker, he’s simply writing what he’s always felt attuned for, whereas at Rolling Stone, he didn’t feel that what he wanted to write fit their audience. He said he enjoyed his time there, but didn’t always enjoy the stories he pursued.
But this one is an exception, he said. While at Rolling Stone, he went through an experimental stage with his writing style. And here, it shines through: The lead is from the perspective of a dead man—Richard Brautigan at his favorite bar.
This is what immediately drew me to this story—so much so that I must have read it three times before continuing, just out of appreciation for its brilliance. In the lead, Brautigan is a ghost watching his friends and women he used to love “drink his spirit to rest,” Wright writes in this first line. If Wright was ever experimental, this had to have been his peak:
Richard’s ghost turned away and went looking for himself at the bar. … One of the tricks of death is holding on to time. Richard slipped across the room and found himself at his usual spot beside the cigarette machine, though he was not the red-faced, middle-aged drunk with the dirty mustache that he had grown used to seeing in the mirror, but a tall, blond, clean-shaven young man, abjectly shy and full of secrets. Richard must have dropped several decades, for it was himself at twenty-one, wearing jeans and a torn T-shirt and cheap, large eyeglasses. He stuck his hands in his pockets. Not a dime. … Oh, yes, he remembered what it was like to be broke and alone.
And from here, Wright takes us back in time to 1956, when Brautigan was a young man full of potential and with a thousand places to go in life, not yet broken by a bad writer’s spell of incessant rejection and a shortage of vivacity. Wright proceeds to build up Brautigan’s early career success and fame—only to take us down a slope of bad digressions and bad decisions later in the story, finding points of transition where his flaws begin to surface: The first bad turn is his conflicting need for “casual affairs at the same time that he wanted reasonably healthy relationships,” one friend said, destroying his first marriage. But this is hardly the beginning. Only a bump in his high ride to brief stardom, coasting along with guys from the Beat Generation—Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gary Synder.
Wright lets the fame last only fleetingly before the descent begins. It isn’t sudden, though. It’s almost blended in with his happy, crazy little life among other successful writers. His revelry begins to appear more so as alcoholism, bringing him down embarrassingly as his book proposals begin to be rejected and his reputation begins to waver.
What’s also interesting about this story is that it isn’t necessarily chronological, though it appears—when Wright first brings us back to 1956—as if it will be. We don’t learn a single detail of Brautigan’s childhood until Wright uses a memory one of his ex-wives had of a trip back to his boyhood hometown as a segue into these early days, toward the end of the story. A rather tragic upbringing, somehow this provides better insight into the failings that we had previously been reading about. While Wright continues into high school and Brautigan’s early interest in writing, we see how this eccentric writer was invented—before we return to his ex-wife’s perspective in the present-time as she looks back on her trip to his childhood in the wake of his death.
Wright’s smooth traversing between different scenes of Brautigan’s strange life eventually lead us to the last few anecdotes that Wright chooses to highlight which best demonstrate Brautigan’s eccentricities in the months leading to his death. The anecdotes are from friends—most of whom were likely at the bar in the opening scene, when Brautigan’s ghost was looking back at all of this.
Really a solid unconventional take on storytelling here—definitely take the time to read. And thanks to Longform.org for resurfacing this gem.