Taking Life

St. Martin's Offers Two Perspectives On The Late Richard Brautigan: His, And Hers.

You Can't Catch Death (A Daughter's Memoir), by Ianthe Brautigan (St. Martin's Press). Paper, $21.95.

An Unfortunate Woman, by Richard Brautigan (St. Martin's Press). Paper, $17.95.

IN 1984, NOVELIST and poet Richard Brautigan got drunk and killed himself with a bullet to the head. He was 49 years old. Two weeks later his badly decomposed body was found next to boxes of unfinished, unpublished work. Unable to enter the house of his suicide, Brautigan's only daughter, Ianthe, had the papers delivered to her. She writes, "I have a lot of paper with blood on it, because when my father killed himself he bled on some of the pages he'd been working on."

The day the boxes were delivered, hundreds of flies escaped. The sight of flies that bred in her father's body leads Ianthe to panic. "I'm going to die," she cries to her mother. She fears the contagion of death. Her mother tells her, "You can't catch death." While this may be true, as this daughter's memoir explains, you can't run away from it, either. Death by suicide begs for healing and understanding, the task Ianthe Brautigan meets head on in researching and writing this memoir.

This daughter, like Brautigan himself, led an unusual and difficult childhood. She starts her story in San Francisco in 1960. One year after her birth, her parents permanently split up. Half of the year Ianthe lived with her mother, an impoverished single parent who would eventually raise four children alone. The other half of the year she lived with her enigmatic father.

Until 1974, Richard Brautigan lived in an unimposing apartment on Geary Street in San Francisco. Having moved there in search of what fired the Beats, he roamed North Beach with his small daughter straining to keep up. Memories from this time are pleasant as she sees her father rise to fame. While her mother "struggled to make ends meet," Ianthe explains, "my father seemed rich as Midas."

Newfound wealth led Brautigan to buy a ranch close to Livingston, Montana, in the beautiful Paradise Valley. Here novelist Jim Harrison taught Ianthe fly fishing. Brautigan drank late into the night and exchanged vivid stories with his fellow writers. In this community the writing consumed the writer. Ianthe explains that their work "had a life or death quality about itä[Writing] was the most important thing; everything else came in second, wives, children, even the writers themselves."

Life in Montana led Brautigan to alcoholism and recurrent threats of suicide. "If you weren't here," he tells his daughter, "I would have killed myself last night." The binges alternate with periods of sobriety and productivity until the inevitable happens: the daughter grows up and leaves.

Many years later Ianthe's grandmother tells her of her father's impoverished childhood and a court-ordered stay in a mental institution, where Brautigan was treated with shock therapy. "Those Brautigans," the grandmother says casually, "always killing themselves. One sister killed herself and a brother did too."

Ianthe Brautigan's straightforward writing style creates a work without self-pity that deftly substantiates her pain. In An Unfortunate Woman, Richard Brautigan's "travel journal" discovered after his death, Brautigan approaches the same subject of death, and suicide, but from his typically circumspect manner. With dark humor and irony, the elder Brautigan's last work acknowledges the preoccupation that eventually claimed his life.

The unfortunate woman of the title remains unnamed, but Brautigan lives in the "house in Berkeley where she hanged herself." Although we never envision the action itself, he invites us to speculate on its ramifications. The house is "high-ceilinged" and the "shadows in the house have been here for a long time." Brautigan is fascinated by the "atmosphere of the houseäand its role in eternity." As he explains, however, he can only come so close:

I don't want to know which room she hanged herself in. One day somebody who knew started to tell and I said I didn't want to knowäWe were eating dinner at the timeäYou do not want to add death-by-hanging to any recipe you are cooking.

Even in his earliest works, Brautigan approaches pain by employing a unique combination of poetry and comic relief. Trout Fishing in America, his book of prose poetry that has sold over three million copies worldwide, is a fine example.

An Unfortunate Woman is not on par with that work, though it displays flashes of the inimitable Brautigan style. This alone makes it a must for the true Brautigan fan.

"My plan was to write a book following like a calendar map the goings-on of my life," Brautigan writes. "I can't return to the beginningäI will finish as I started toward no other end than a human being living and what can happen to him over a period of time and what, if anything, it means."

Brautigan leaves a fine body of work as legacy, and his daughter's memoir, reinforced by biographical detail, further illuminates his writing.

An Unfortunate Woman, while forced and rambling at its worst, nonetheless offers a meditation from another candid voice, disclosing Brautigan's struggles with alcoholism, and some insight into the state of mind preceding his untimely death.