Reviews — From the December 2012 issue

Man Underwater

The democratic fiction of Richard Brautigan

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Discussed in this essay:

Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan, by William Hjortsberg. Counterpoint. 880 pages. $42.50.

Every year, countless people submit their fiction and non-fiction to magazines and book publishers and are rejected. At the places I’ve worked as an editor—not the most selective magazines in the country, but not the least, either—we’ve typically accepted about one of every thousand stories. Naturally, most of these submissions are dreck—the preferred term in the industry for unsolicited manuscripts, “slush,” comes from an early-twentieth-century colloquialism for rotten fruit—but accidents inevitably happen. Philip Roth and John Ashbery were both rescued from slush piles. One editor wrote of Samuel Beckett that he “wouldn’t touch [Beckett’s novels] with a barge-pole”; another advised Harry Crews to burn his work, explaining that “fire is a great refiner.” A publisher sent John Barth a note saying that his stories sounded “like a penny-whistle out of a wind-bag full of bad odors.”

The Brautigan Library for unpublished manuscripts is a sanctuary for the world’s literary rejects. “People think the library might be a trolling spot for publishers and talent scouts,” John Barber, the librarian, told me last May when I visited him at the brick building on a leafy corner lot in Vancouver, Washington. The space beyond the arched double doors is modest: the floor is black and red checkered tile, like an Italian restaurant’s, and the main room doubles as a gallery for the Clark County Historical Museum, which, on the day of my visit, featured an exhibit of Vancouver’s newspapers. The shop sells such dreary volumes as For the Love of Farming and Weather of the Pacific Northwest.

The library is situated in a corner of the museum and looks like a living room, with two stuffed chairs and an end table facing a set of bookshelves. A whitewashed sign announces that this is the brautigan library: a very public library, though there’s no one around except a tall man standing behind one of the chairs, who turns out to be a life-size cardboard cutout of the late author Richard Brautigan. Patrons from across the United States have paid twenty-five dollars apiece to house their unpublished novels here, books with titles like “Autobiography About a Nobody” and “Sterling Silver Cockroaches.” The shelves hold 291 of these cheap vinyl-bound volumes, which are organized into categories according to a schema called the Mayonnaise System: Adventure, Natural World, Street Life, Family, Future, Humor, Love, War and Peace, Meaning of Life, Poetry, Spirituality, Social/Political/Cultural, and All the Rest. Bylines and titles don’t appear on the covers. “The only way to browse the stacks is to choose a category and pick at random,” Barber explains. “Are you in the mood for Adventure or the Meaning of Life?”

The Mayonnaise System was never intended for use. It’s based on an idea in Brautigan’s novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, in which an earnest, overworked man in his thirties presides over a library whose sole purpose is to collect and store the world’s unpublished manuscripts. Patrons drop by day and night (mostly night) to deposit their works. When the narrator’s girlfriend, Vida, gets pregnant and the couple travels to Tijuana for an abortion, a clever metaphor is spun about unwanted children and unwanted books. “You have to be friendly,” the librarian explains to the man filling in for him. “To make the person and the book feel wanted . . . and to gather pleasantly together the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.”

“If you rummaged through the sock drawers of every person in America,” Barber tells me as I pluck a manuscript called “Stalin’s Chicken and Other Abominations” from the shelf, “you could fill this building with thousands of failed dreams.” Though Barber looks like a stereotypical academic—wild hair and combed white mustache—he has had a restless past: a tour guide for eight years in Yellowstone, Barber spent years writing and failing to publish his own fiction before getting his Ph.D. in linguistics and becoming a professor of creative media and digital culture at Washington State University Vancouver. He’s also compiled the world’s most exhaustive bibliography of Brautigan’s work. “This is a place Brautigan dreamed of his entire life,” Barber said before leaving me alone in the library to read. “It’s a place where rejection doesn’t exist.”

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