Whenever I'm in a bookshop, I go to the "B" section and compulsively scan the shelves murmuring "Bradbury… Brontë… Burroughs…' I am, of course, looking for the name Richard Brautigan. I seldom find it. It's a nervous habit that dates back to the time when all his writing was out of print and the only places to find his novels and poetry were second-hand booksellers and charity shops. A battered Picador edition of one of his works was a real find and a cause for celebration in the shared house I was living in at the time. My friend Steve had brought a Brautigan book home and started the fixation. It was The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 and we all waited patiently for our turn to read it. After that we were hooked.
I had heard of Brautigan before but had him filed under "hippy writer" in my long list of unfounded prejudices. The blurbs on the book jackets didn't help: the one for The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (my second Brautigan, a hardback, ex-library copy discovered at a jumble sale in Camberwell) reads "Magic Child, a15-year-old Indian girl, wanders into the wrong whorehouse looking for the right men to kill the monster that lives in the ice caves under the basement of Miss Hawkline's yellow house."
It sounded wacky, zany – something that dope-smoking students would be into, OK for the Sixties when everyone was high but unacceptable in the grim Eighties of Thatcher's Britain. I was very wrong. The beauty of Brautigan's writing is its dryness – the way absurd or fantastical events are described in a completely deadpan manner. The subject matter might be a little unusual but it is always presented precisely and economically. He's the Sixties' Hemingway.
The day Sombrero Fallout entered my life still shines in my memory. I found it along with a copy of Dreaming of Babylon in a Sue Ryder shop just off Sloane Square – halcyon days. We were now in the early Nineties. I had found out a little more about Brautigan in the interim: that his star had waned in the Seventies and that he'd ended up killing himself in 1984 when no one was buying his books any more. Sombrero Fallout was from his "later period" – when things were starting to get a bit chilly. You can sense that from the book: a writer is trying to get a story started but becomes obsessed with searching his apartment for one of his Japanese ex-lover's hairs instead. The aborted story is thrown in the bin, where it writes itself while the writer works himself up into a jealous rage over whom his ex-girlfriend might be sleeping with. The bits we have been shown read like self-parody, but left to its own devices the abandoned story develops into an action-packed blockbuster. "Look," Brautigan seems to be saying, "the writing gets on better without my interference."
Meanwhile, the imagination that seems to have deserted him – as far as his writing is concerned – proceeds to torture him with images of his ex-lover's supposed infidelities. (She is, in fact, sleeping alone at home with her cat.) Sombrero Fallout is about an imagination in crisis. It is a "what am I doing with my life?" book. It is full of doubt and self-loathing – and it is also incredibly funny. Yes, I am talking about that dread phrase laugh-out-loud funny. Brautigan describes himself as a "humorist without a sense of humour" but somehow the fact that he's not laughing at his own jokes just makes them funnier for us. I don't want to spoil your impending enjoyment by quoting examples but look out for the stuff about the ghost – it's a killer.
When I was invited on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 2005, I chose Sombrero Fallout as the only book I was allowed to take along with me (the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare are provided as standard). A 187-page novel with very short chapters and lots of blank spaces, which can be read in a single sitting, may seem a strange choice, but I would probably stick with my decision if asked again today. It is Brautigan's best book – precisely because of the way it allows glimpses of the writer in all his doubt and anxiety and then mixes them with moments of high comedy. It is simultaneously his silliest and most profound piece of work.
I imagine that the worst thing about being on a desert island is thinking about everything you're missing out on, the whole world continuing without you. Sombrero Fallout – a treatise on the pitfalls of the imagination, on the ridiculous situations you can sometimes think yourself into – might be a very useful antidote to have around in your hour of need. To remind you that it's all in your head: the good and the bad. And, most of all, to remind you to laugh.
'Sombrero Fallout', 'Trout Fishing in America', 'A Confederate of General Sur' and 'Revenge of the Lawn' by Richard Brautigan with introductions by Jarvis Cocker, Neil Gaiman, Frank Black and Sarah Hall are published by Canongate tomorrowReuse content