Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Trout Fishing in Livingston: Staging Richard Brautigan

As I chose my seat in the second row, Richard Brautigan sat on a stool at the front of the room and read to us from “The Hunchback Trout,” a chapter from Trout Fishing in America: “I had that hunchback trout for dinner.  Wrapped in cornmeal and fried in butter, its hump tasted sweet as the kisses of Esmeralda.”

It wasn't really Richard Brautigan in the flesh, of course.  Thirty years ago, his flesh had been scattered around the bedroom of his Bolinas, California house by the blast of a revolver.  No, this was R. B. shrunk down to the size and shape of a cassette tape.  Now his voice, tinny and full of static, rose from a tape recorder sitting on the stool which itself sat in the front of the room where we'd gathered upstairs at Elk River Books in Livingston, Montana on a warm, Indian summer afternoon.  The two or three dozen of us had come to the bookstore for “Trout Fishing in Livingston: A Theatrical Homage to the Writings of Richard Brautigan,” as presented by the Caldera Theatre Company and Elk River Arts & Lectures program.

The mood was set as soon as we entered the upstairs room.  Just inside the door, red-white-and-blue cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon sweated on ice and multi-colored Goldfish crackers swam in a glass bowl.  The piscine joke was not lost on us as we snicked open our beers and tossed handfuls of fish into our mouths.

We took our seats.  We were ready for Richard.   We had our creel, our pole, our line.  We were ready to cast onto the waters and see what we could hook.  We wanted to taste words sweet as Esmeralda's kisses.

An hour later, when we left the bookstore, we were not--and I think I speak for the whole of our group when I say this--we were not disappointed.

*    *    *

Act 1, Scene 1

RICHARD BRAUTIGAN, a forty-nine-year-old writer dressed in a white robe and a battered, misshapen hat enters an empty stage lit by a spotlight.  In one hand, he carries a thick book about the size of a small briefcase.  He stops center stage, in the glaring eye of the spotlight, and stares out into the darkness.  He pushes his granny glasses up the bridge of his nose, grins, and waggles his eyebrows at the audience.  He holds up a copy of the book: Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan by William Hjortsberg.  He turns to page 1 and starts to read.

“Richard Brautigan never heard his final gunshot.  Traveling three times the speed of sound, the Winchester Western Super X .44 magnum hollow point exploded up through the poet’s head, destroying his face, dislodging his wire-rimed eyeglasses, blasting off the back of his skull.  Continuing on, the bullet tore a hole in the molding above a corner window, struck a 1x4 nailed inside, and fell back into the space within the wall.  At the same instant, all dreams, fears, hopes and ambition erased forever, brain disintegrated, the nerves of his spinal cord disconnected, Brautigan’s knees buckled and his body dropped straight down, as the weapon, a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver, flew from his lifeless hand.  He was dead before he hit the floor.”  (He stops reading and looks at the audience.)  Well, I’ll be damned.

At the word “damned,” two DEMONS enter—one from Stage Left, one from Stage Right—and rush up to BRAUTIGAN.  Each grabbing an arm, they rip him in half and run back off stage the way they came, dragging the bloody pieces with them.  Jubilee Hitchhiker falls to the floor.  Its pages flutter in the breeze from the running demons.

*    *    *

NOTE: That scene boiled up out of this blogger’s own imagination.  It is not how Marc Beaudin's “Trout Fishing in Livingston” begins.

*    *    *

Beaudin, co-owner of Elk River Books and director of that afternoon’s entertainment, walks to the stool at the front of the room and turns off the tape recorder.  Brautigan’s voice disappears.  In its place, we hear a train whistle moan three blocks away as an engine pulls a line of cars through Livingston.  Beaudin welcomes us and gives a short introduction to what we’re about to see: an hour of theatricalities culled from the fiction and poetry of Richard Brautigan, the late-blooming counterculture writer who lived, off and on, in the Livingston area from the beginning of the 1970s until his death in 1984.

Marc Beaudin opens the show
Behind Beaudin, three actors take their places in the cleared-away space between the bookstore’s shelves.  They each play a trout: Gabriel Clark as “Brown,” Bret Kinslow as “Cutthroat” and Sherry Pikul as “Rainbow.”  They are joined by William Hjortsberg (“Gatz” to you and me), Brautigan’s biographer and close friend during his Livingston years.

Beaudin raises his PBR in a toast to Brautigan, then turns the stage over to his actors.

*    *    *

SCENE 1 (Scarlatti Tilt)

Black stage.  In the darkness, violin music is heard.  It stops abruptly.  Lights up.

It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.

BROWN (as she hands him a gun)
That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

*    *    *

And on it goes, riffing through Brautigan’s Greatest Hits.  Rainbow, Brown and Cutthroat stand on chairs, throttle each other, and pirouette in a series of hilarious ballet moves.  The action dips and swerves and sips from selected pieces of Trout Fishing in America and Brautigan's other works.  Every now and then, Gatz Hjortsberg moves to the podium and reads portions from his biography, including a scene in which Brautigan—after a night of heavy drinking with friends—walked through a Livingston café, sticking his index finger in customers’ food:
Brautigan wove between the tables, serene as a drunken angel, dipping his finger dispassionately into the cheese omelets and sunny-side-ups on his way to oblivion. There were perhaps thirty other customers, railroad workers and ranch hands, the usual late-night crowd, and nothing like this had ever happened to any of them before. Not looking back, Richard made his way to the cash register by the door. He picked up the tab for everyone in the place. Three dozen free breakfasts anointed by the touch of the poet.
A train whistle blew again and maybe it was just my imagination, but I swear I heard the clatter of silverware on a Formica-topped table coming from a restaurant a block west of us there in Livingston.

Sherry Pikul and Gabriel Clark listen to Brautigan biographer William Hjortsberg

Cutthroat steps forward and, channeling Brautigan, says, “My typewriter is fast enough as if it were a horse that’s just escaped from the ether, plunging through silence, and the words gallop in order while outside the sun is shining....Perhaps the words remember me.”

*    *    *

I will never forget the first time I met Richard Brautigan on the page.  I was twelve years old.  My head was filled with the gentle literature of writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder, C. S. Lewis, and Beverly Cleary.  I was not prepared for Willard and His Bowling Trophies.

But there I was, browsing the New Books section in the Teton County Library.  Clarification: the Adult New Books section.  I was feeling my oats, stretching my muscles, pushing my literary boundaries.  I wanted adventure, danger, something scandalous.  I was, after all, a preacher’s kid living in a small Wyoming town.  I was ready to borrow a book that would raise eyebrows, blow the wigs off the heads of those nice old ladies in my father’s church.

Boy oh boy oh boy.  With Willard, Brautigan’s 1975 novel, I got more than I’d bargained for.  It seemed like such an interesting book, judging by the cover of a toucan-beaked bird standing in the middle of a bunch of trophies.  The inside flap of the dust jacket teased and tantalized:
The novel takes place in an apartment house on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. The principals are Constance and Bob, the couple upstairs who read the Greek Anthology and play the Story of O game, a strange mixture of offbeat sexual fantasies; Pat and John, the couple downstairs who eat turkey sandwiches naked and watch Johnny Carson; the three Logan brothers, whose bowling trophies have been stolen; and Willard, a three-foot-high papier-mâché bird. The Logan brothers have vowed to recover their bowling trophies at any cost and seek vengeance on those who stole them.
Hmmm, I thought, I like Johnny Carson and turkey sandwiches. This might even be better than Ramona the Pest.  At the time, I had no idea what the Story of O was about.

I went to the front desk to check out the book, trying to hide it in a stack of Nancy Drew mysteries and a couple of books about boys who romped through fields with their dogs.  The librarian knew I was a dog lover and so we chit-chatted about Labrador Retrievers while she stamped the due dates in the books.  Nary a word was said about bowling trophies or sexual fantasies.

That night, my parents paid a visit to one of the church members and I was brought along because it was going to be a late evening of conversation and card games (my parents were renowned champs of what was known as “Jackson Hole Rummy”).  As was my custom, I brought along a book to read while they shuffled and dealt cards, exchanged church gossip and sipped ginger ale.

This evening, they were visiting the home of Jim and Pud Case, a couple in their fifties who’d blown a few wigs off heads themselves about a year earlier when Pud got pregnant.  Pud—which, though I never knew for certain, was probably short for “Puddin’”—was a bright-eyed woman with short dark hair.  She seemed to take her late-in-life pregnancy in stride and never hesitated to explain it by saying, “Apparently, Jim’s vasectomy was a failure.”  Jim, a stooped, bald-headed man, always stood by her side, looking suitably embarrassed.

I was twelve years old and had no idea what a vasectomy was; but before the night was out, I’d have a clear understanding of genital warts, sado-masochism, the Story of O and what, exactly, a penis did when it was introduced to a vagina.

As my parents sat down at the kitchen table with Pud and Jim, the room already filled with laughter and the rippling tear of shuffled cards, I excused myself.  “Do you mind if I go somewhere to read my book?”

“Oh, sure,” Pud waved vaguely to the back of the house, “you can use our bedroom.  It should be pretty quiet back there.”  She winked at Jim.  Jim looked suitably embarrassed.

Clutching Willard and His Bowling Trophies in one hand and a glass of room-temperature Pepsi in the other, I walked down the night-dark hallway, trying to find the bedroom.  Along the way, I passed the nursery, recently and hastily converted from the spare room where they'd been storing Jim’s taxidermied big-game mounts.  Elk and antelope heads now lay in a jumble in one corner of the room.  There was a crib in the other corner.  It smelled like diapers and made soft, wet bubbling noises, like a tiny airplane taking off from an even tinier runway.   I said, “Hey, there.”  Getting no response, I moved on down the hallway until I found Pud and Jim’s bedroom.

The only pieces of furniture in the room were the king-sized bed and an oak dresser whose surface held a scatter of coins and half a roll of breath mints.  No chairs, no window seats, not even a pile of firm pillows—no place to sit but the pregnancy-making bed.  I didn’t dare disturb the mattress, so I knelt beside the bed, as if I was praying.  I opened Willard at random and got my first blast of Brautigan.
      So she went to bed with the lawyer and got warts on her vagina.
      They looked like a hideous clump of nightmare mushrooms. They had to be burned off with an electric needle: one painful treatment following on the claws of another painful treatment.
I sucked in my breath and held myself quiet until I could hear my parents safely down the hall, bidding on cards and chuckling at one of my father’s jokes.  Two thoughts ran simultaneously through my head:

I shouldn’t be reading this.

I can’t stop reading this.

I got up, closed the door with the softest of clicks, then returned to the bed.  I picked up the book, found my place, and hunkered down on the floor beside the bed, out of sight just in case anyone wandered back to the bedroom to see what I was up to.
      They used to make jokes about erotic plumbing. They were both kind of traditional sex fiends.
      One day somebody loaned Bob a copy of the Story of O, which he read. It is a gothic sadomasochist novel that sort of turned him on because he thought that it was so strange. He would get a partial erection when he read it.
By the time I got to the bowling trophies, many pages later, my body felt like a burning coal, a volcano about to erupt.

I had come of age on the page.

*    *    *

As I sat in the warm upper room of Elk River Books nearly forty years later, I thought back to the night I lost my virginity to Richard Brautigan.  It was all there: my parents' chuckles, my thundering heart, the slippery feel of the protective mylar cover of that library book.  If I concentrated really hard, I could probably recall the smell of Pud and Jim’s quilt, an inter-generational mix of man-sweat and baby powder.  And though I couldn’t remember the exact words of Willard or why the bowling trophies were stolen, I do remember the way the book made me feel: dangerous and excited and powerful and alive to the possibilities of everything waiting for me in the adult world.

What I didn’t remember was how Richard Brautigan could make me laugh with the most oddball phrase.  Shift one vowel to the left and the sentence slips on a banana peel.

Bret Kinslow, Gabriel Clark and Sherry Pikul bring Brautigan to life
Gatz and the three actors in front of me were doing a remarkably good job at reminding me just how playful the sad, suicidal author could be.  As we sipped our PBRs and crowded our mouths with Goldfish crackers, we laughed in sprays of crumbs and, after tucking the beer cans between our legs, applauded until our palms stung.

Though it's easy to slip into melancholy when thinking about Brautigan and the way he abruptly ended his life with a .44 Magnum, that afternoon's presentation put us all in a good mood.  Brautigan, the twinkle-eyed jester, tickled our ribs for an hour.

Here’s how Beaudin ends “Trout Fishing in Livingston”:

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a play that ended with the word Mayonnaise.



Applause, applause.

Cast joins hands, bows, nods thanks.


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