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Saturday, September 24, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Richard Brautigan In Watermelon Sugar. London, Picador Books, 1970 (142 pages). Originally published 1968.

My recent interest in Cold War literature has drawn me back to Brautigan’s highly inventive novella In Watermelon Sugar, first written in 1964. It is his third prose book and further established Brautigan’s reputation amongst young readers who were challenging traditional ways of thinking at the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. When he started writing the book, Brautigan was living in the small coastal Californian village of Bolinas. He used the communal, back-to-nature values of Bolinas as the basis of his post-apocalyptic town of iDEATH.

This is an experimental, early stab at post-modernism. The nameless narrator directly addresses his audience and meta-fictionally lets them know he is writing this book.

At the beginning of the novella the community has fragmented into two distinct camps. There are about 375 people who live in the town of iDEATH. The folks are gentle and live a simple subsistent existence with watermelon being their staple crop. Watermelon sugar is used in the production of practically everything- including clothes, houses and bridges. The people live in shacks and share meals together. They speak in naïve, matter-of-fact sentences. They live a kind of idyllic but empty existence. Fed up with life at iDEATH the rebel iNBOIL and about twenty followers leave the village and set up camp in the Forgotten Works, a gigantic dump which holds the debris of the past world. They distil whiskey and get drunk and do evil things. When sober they sometimes dig up relics and books from the dump and sell them to the villagers.

Nothing is known about the outside world. Presumably society as we know it has been destroyed through nuclear war and pockets of people have leant how to survive. The book that the narrator is working on is only the twenty-fourth in 171 years and the first in thirty-five years. Similarly, not much is known about the past, apart from the idea that talking tigers used to roam the area and ate no name's parents before being wiped out by humans.

Although In Watermelon Sugar was written in 1964 and touches on some Cold War ideas and values, there are no explicit philosophical, religious, or political references to make it a significant Cold War text. It clearly establishes, for example, iDEATH as alternative hippy-like community which has close connections to the land but little else. The novella is more the product of Brautigan’s far-out  imagination. The village’s twenty or so giant vegetable statues, the underwater tombs, and the different coloured watermelons make for trippy reading but don’t say much about the times. At the dining table one night the rebel iNBOIL aptly points out to his brother Charley: ‘This place stinks. This isn’t iDEATH at all. This is just a figment of your imagination.’

I’m not sure what the conflict between the villagers and iNBOIL and his gang is meant to represent, if anything. iNBOIL is just a pisshead with no communist attributes or sympathies. The ending is very bizarre with iNBOIL and his mob cutting off their thumbs, ears and noses and bleeding to death. Perhaps it foreshadows Brautigan’s own descent into alcoholism and his eventual suicide at 49. Hemingway-like, he placed a .44 magnum shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. His suicide note simply read, ‘Messy isn’t it?’ 

This novella is far from messy. It is carefully crafted and represents an important transitional text between the beats and the hippies.

The best site on Richard Brautigan is easily where you will find extensive critical material on his writing. Find it here: