Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan

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Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: There are 62 short stories in Revenge of the Lawn, some no more than paragraph or two. Yet they're all telling in a very attractive, faux naif kind of way. If you like short stories, if you like your short stories with a little bit of surrealism thrown into the mix and if you like the Beat boys but haven't yet discovered Brautigan, then this is the book for you. It's absolutely lovely.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 131 Date: February 1995
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co
ISBN: 0395706742

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Of all 62 stories this is my favourite: Ghost Children of Tacoma. It's about three pages long and it recalls childhood games of fighter pilots and bombs and casualties and faceless enemies against a grown-up backdrop of the shock attack of Pearl Harbour and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II:

During World War II I personally killed 352,892 enemy soldiers without wounding one. Children need a lot less hospitals in war than grown-ups do. Children pretty much look at it from the all-death side. I also sank 987 battleships, 532 aircraft carriers, 799 cruisers, 2,007 destroyers and 161 transport ships. Transports were not too interesting a target: very little sport. I also sank 5,465 enemy PT boats. I have no idea why I sank so many of them. It was just one of those things. Every time I turned around for four years, I was sinking a PT boat. I still wonder about that. 5,465 are a lot of PT boats.

I like Ghost Children of Tacoma best for its sticky, sweet warmth and its evocation of a time and a place in childhood recalled with wry but obvious affection; a time and a place where adult voices are but distant echos in a child's world of fantasy, imagination and acting games. I like it also for the deliberately child-like, short and direct sentences: to me they sound like the blunt voice of truth tempered with innocence and decorated with perfect comic timing. And of course I like it because, hiding behind the ways of children and the voice of a nostalgic adult, there is pithy comment on war and the way war reduces human lives to lists; lists of weaponry and armouries, lists of casualties and deaths. Stories told like that; those that hold inside them an altogether accurate satire made without vitriol but with a gentle, ever-so-slightly-spikey humour hold more resonance for me than could ever a hundred air-punching pieces of shouted rhetoric.

Books I think, but most especially books of short stories, say very different things to different people, that to me is the particular joy of reading and I read Revenge of the Lawn in afternoon that was the happier for having done so. None of the sixty-two stories are much longer than the three pages that make Ghost Children of Tacoma and many are much shorter, one or two just a single paragraph. They are so short that they are almost anecdotal, the tiniest no more than a single image. Some are set in the Pacific North West, in Tacoma, place of Brautigan's childhood, some in California where he spent his adult life writing, somewhere between the beats and the hippies. Some describe a brief glimpse of a scene or an incident like punctuation describes a sentence, some talk about childhood, some about love and sex, some about death, but despite the wildly disparate subject matter of the stories there is a mood which joins them together.

Brautigan people are often disassociated in some way from the American dream of the freedom to chase profit and possession and they react to stress not by anger and violence, but by withdrawing and by observing themselves and others. They chronicle their own bad times in a wistful kind of way, they don't rage against the dying of the light because theirs is the passive resistance of the hippie sixties. Often, in the face of unhappiness, even their melancholy seems serene. And, overlaying the detached voice of his people, is the voice of Brautigan with its love of language and its pretty writing, laughing, imagining and injecting sometimes a little world weary humour, sometimes a spark of mischievous surrealism and always the kind of uncomformist similes reminiscent of dreams. In Brautigan country a house is frosted like a birthday cake, false teeth click like crickets in the jaw of a skeleton, children sit in the gutter like slum sparrows, and fear becomes a chandelier of hard, sharp, sparkling glass. The shorter stories are the observations of the poet Brautigan, the longer ones perhaps the distillation of the things the novelist Brautigan wanted to say.

I loved Coffee which talks about the loneliness of being between love affairs, the way sexual intimacy and loving closeness vanish so quickly with the break up of a relationship and describes perfectly the solitary coldness which follows. Shortly after comes I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone which is beautiful in its enthusiasm for new, fresh love and the joy and optimism it brings. Oh, have another little quote, because it's a lovely one:

I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio. That's how you look to me.

There's the funny but rather savage indictment of the misuse of a continent, Carthage Sink, in which Carthage is a bombastic river whose trout would rather die than swim in it, Elmira about a dream-journey into a childhood place and the resonant, almost mythic pull of its memory, there is a fabulous dig at the square peg round hole ways of the world as people try to bury a tired lion in their backyard, there are bears, dressed and sitting in the front seats of trucks, and there is Mr Henley, laughably able to get credit because he is already in debt, with the shadow of a bird, the symbol and the chain of his new debt, nailed to him by a filing cabinet blacksmith. And Cameron who was once young and dangerous but is old now, and whose chair has taken on his spirit:

Cameron had his own easy chair in the front room. It was covered with a wool blanket. Nobody else ever sat in that chair, but it was always as if he were sitting there, anyway. His spirit had taken command of that chair. Old people have a way of doing that with the furniture they end their lives sitting in.

I'm giving it all away, so I'll stop telling and quoting now. That child-like style and accurate but sweet, passive humour pervade all the stories in Revenge of the Lawn and yes, on occasion the comic timing breaks down, leaving the tone perhaps overly manneristic and a little contrived, silly even. It's only once or twice though, and it doesn't really matter because another, better, wee little story lies ahead with just the turn of a page. Like many of those beat boys (yes, even the gay ones), Brautigan's view of women has a tad of schoolboy misogyny about it, but benignly so, and it isn't really anything more than a vague irritation. Also, in a beaty kind of way, there are maybe a few too many images of doors, maybe a dozen or so scattered throughout the book, not a huge number but enough to grate a little. They had a thing about doors in those days of the sixties, didn't they? These are minor niggles, however, in comparison to the gift of the happy hours of the afternoon I spent reading Revenge of the Lawn and to the way that the book is still in my bag so that I can go back to my favourite parts when I'm in need of a smile, or two, or three.

Richard Brautigan drank you know, a lot. Before he reached fifty he was found dead, beside him was a gun and an empty bottle. It is sad to think that in a world such as his, where resistance is passive, violence in the end can be turned only against the self. It is, I suppose, the ultimate in the internalisation of distress described in many of the stories in Revenge of the Lawn. It is sad because in this world of revenge and aggression and bombs we could do with a bit more Brautigan I think. Behind the short sentences and the child's voice, underneath the prose poetry of the figurative language, there lies a layer of subtle wisdom which understands the value of laughter and dreams.

If you like this book, then you might like to read Fup by Jim Dodge. You might enjoy Caravan Thieves by Gerard Woodward.

Booklists.jpg Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan is in the Top Ten Books To Read In One Sitting.

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