Book Of A Lifetime: Revenge of the Lawn, By Richard Brautigan

Reviewed,Sarah Hall
Friday 19 June 2009 00:00

Many attempts have been made to define Richard Brautigan's work - Beat, scat, Zen Buddhist, magical-realist, hippie, cult, outsider, naïve, pacific, lunatic. Nowhere is his work's resistance to categorical designation more apparent than in Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970. I came across this oddest collection in my late teens, which might be a perfect age to discover Brautigan. The vim and originality of tones and images, the berserk plots and off-the-wall incidents, seemed perfectly pitched to appeal to a rebellious, youthful sense of humour. The language was deceptively informal, poetic, "hip". Back then I was a troubled reader, full of north-west rain and rural loneliness. Books felt like portals into even remoter worlds - papery oubliettes where no one else existed and the author was absent. I wanted company, not a textual abstract.

But here was a sudden, slender volume that was host to a multitude of companionable voices. Some of the pieces were startlingly brief; I could open the pages and hop in and out. More than this: amid the rabble of characters was a singular presence – the writer was there, in some state or other. He was there, playing around, often exposed and steering the narrative the way authors were not supposed to. I could imagine verbal and metaphysical light bulbs going on above his head. I could see him crafting these extraordinary, joyful, lovelorn gifts of prose and handing them over to me, the reader. And what gifts! I loved the operatic, whisky-cooking grandmothers, the man who replaces his plumbing with poetry only to end up in a fist-fight with the verses of Emily Dickinson, and that little old lady who demands a pound of liver from the butcher for her bees. I loved the strings of words: "ragged black toothache sky", "wheelbarrow-sized pile of steaming dragon shit", "April in God-damn".

I was moved by the difficult human exchanges, heartbreaks and eroticisms. I was charmed by the disorderly conduct, wrong-footed by tales that seemed to be about banking, and then were about corpses, and then were about banking again. This was the imagination unbound; on the page, literally anything was possible.

What appealed to me then appeals to me now. Brautigan is a folk-artist, a master storyteller, and a master rule-breaker. He isn't coy or transparent. He is enormously ambitious and because of this, occasionally falls off the wire – with exuberant, random metaphors that don't quite work and sentences employed simply to justify a previous whimsy.

But I don't care. I like heart and imperfection. And because of it, the stories never loose their freshness. Revenge of the Lawn remains vibrant, radical and generous: 25 years after his death, Brautigan is still, like his poverty-stricken Oregon typist, "pounding at the gates of American literature".

Sarah Hall's novel 'How to Paint a Dead Man' is published by Faber & Faber

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in