This book, Richard Brautigan’s latest, is not the best introduction to an author who has been described as a man who has revolutionized the form of fiction. Just as Jack Kerouac was the guru of the Beat generation, Brautigan is undoubtedly the guru of the hippie generation. Born in 1935 in the American Pacific North-West, he has by now published over twenty books of poetry and prose. His English publishers are Jona¬than Cape but almost all his novels, from the first, A Con¬federate General from Big Sur to the latest, Tokyo-Montana Express, are available in Picador.
One of the ways in which Brautigan has revolutionized English prose has been to introduce a method of writing forgotten since Turgenev’s A Hunter’s Sketchbook. This is the leisurely collection of poetic impressions and their careful compilation into a sketchbook of prose to present the very feel and texture of a country, of a way of life and of the author’s leisurely, lyri¬cal and philosophical attitude to friends, situations, the beauty of mountain and lake countryside, the vulgarity of modern commercial ‘civilization’, dire poverty amidst wealth, the whole presented with a great deal of profession¬alism and care.
Brautigan achieved perfection in this method with Troutfishing in America and Revenge of the Lawn, but with his shifting scenes of Japan and America in Tokyo-Montana Express, he has produced a slick collection of commercial photographs in which his anger and frustra¬tion with a highly competitive and commercial ‘system’ is always evident. It is depressing for readers who loved the Brautigan of Troutfishing, the story of a daydreaming adole¬scent who has been a complete failure in the mechanized, competitive society where he was brought up and who, even when he is in the city, dreams of fishing, a useless and ench¬anting occupation, in his beloved lakes and rivers of vast Northern America.
The Brautigan of Tokyo-Montana is bored, frustrated, and old. His humour is almost black as when he describes the menu on Death Row in San Quentin penitentiary. Or the weekend of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, when he and a friend photograph thousands of dead Christmas trees in San Francisco. Other such pictures of the desolation of American life haunt the reader. The personal frustration of the author is also continually pre¬sented, for example the fact that sometimes weeks go by when he receives nothing but ‘junk’ mail in his post box. Or of a friend who rings him once for a few minutes every seven years—and so on. These are not whimsical sket¬ches but the petty agonies of a man bored with success.
The alternating impressions of Japan round off the slick and depressing picture. The most disappointing thing about the Japanese sketches is that these are reminiscent of the Ugly American tourist who has not made the slightest attempt to understand the Japanese mind. The author’s wife is Japanese, and obviously he is fascinated by the country, but unfortun¬ately the book shows no knowledge of Japanese history, culture, the Japanese psyche. All we find are word-photo¬graphs of big hotels, crowded trains, eating fish night and day and such pathetically obvious details as the fact that the average Japanese house¬wife works in the kitchen away from her husband’s friends and, when she sits with them, sits a respectful distance away. Are we to come to the sad conclusion that even an imaginative Western man cannot penetrate under the skin of Asian civilization?
I prefer to think that Richard Brautigan was in debt and had to write a pot-boiler. His publishers have wrapped the whole thing up in a very attractive cover. Richard Brautigan is an author capable of much better writing, and those who have followed him look forward to a more leisurely and a happier book.
Amitava Ray is a freelance Journalist based in Calcutta.