You Can't Catch Death by Ianthe Brautigan [<i>but you can understand it better</i>]
A review by Bruce McKinney
Ms. Brautigan, in her memoir You Can't Catch Death, tells the story of her larger-than-life father Richard Brautigan, the author and iconoclast, and her relationship with him. He, a Hamlet on stage, who lives a compartmentalized life. He is a writer and public personality, roles that are separate from his life as her father which is portrayed in the daughter's account as short stories inserted as random chapters in the novel which is Mr. Brautigan's slide into emotional isolation. She provides a perspective that illuminates what has mostly been an unexplained darkness. On the father's side there are fewer connections. There is a sense of a daughter fighting for a space the father seems determined to keep empty. No doubt he achieved what he thought he wanted and as certainly it was not what he needed. It was Mr. Brautigan's fate to know this. For him the emotional pull was into that complicated place where his writing perspective became clear and his touch with reality was lost. He went there alone, found his voice and a generation of readers.
The emptiness that surrounded Mr. Brautigan in life seems to be deeply implicated in his ability to write. It is as if emotional separation fueled his perceptions, empowering his career even as it destroyed him. In the end this separation cost everything and this is why Mr. Brautigan has been, even to his daughter, difficult to understand. It is also paradoxically precisely the attraction he held for readers in the 1960's and 1970s - he flipped reality on its ear encouraging a generation to believe there was more to perception than what was visible on Father Knows Best. His first work appeared in 1959 in the fading days of the Eisenhower Administration and his most famous book, Trout Fishing in America, in 1967 during the summer of love.
I read Ianthe Brautigan's book about her father looking for clarification and found that and increased clarity in Richard Brautigan's writing which is embedded in the baby boomer understanding of the world and their generation's place in it. In understanding Richard Brautigan we understand ourselves better, perhaps a generation's necessary step to make peace with itself and understand its place in history.
So perhaps it was natural then to reread Mr. Brautigan's classic, Trout Fishing in America, to see if it read differently now that a fresh perspective is available. I first read it thirty-five years ago. This re-reading turned out to be very different and I think it fair to say these two books complete each other. The 1960's were a strong reaction to the 1950's and Trout Fishing was Mr. Brautigan's successful attempt to slip the bounds of conventional perception, to convey possibilities that only a few years earlier were beyond the emotional range of much of America. Ms. Brautigan's account adds feeling and perspective and makes this peculiarly autobiographical story more understandable. Think of it as a guide book. In reading both books I suggest reading her book first.