Personal and Otherwise — January 25, 2013, 11:00 am

Brautigan’s Heirs

A thwarted novelist’s tale

This weekend, hundreds of unpublished writers will attend the Brautigan Unconference, Creative Diddy-wah, and (inter)National Unpublished Writers Day at the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington. Richard Brautigan, who was born seventy-eight years ago this month in nearby Tacoma, imagined a home for the unpublished, “unwanted . . . and haunted volumes of American writing” in his 1971 novel, The Abortion. The author committed suicide in 1984, before he could see the idea brought to life in 2010 by a Brautigan fanatic and local professor named John Barber, who is also the library’s director. When I visited Vancouver for my December Harper’s article, “Man Underwater: The Democratic Fiction of Richard Brautigan,” Barber showed me around:

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 Patrons from across the United States have paid twenty-five dollars apiece to house their unpublished novels here, books with titles like “Autobiography of a Nobody” and “Sterling Silver Cockroaches.”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?”

Screen capture from

After a long weekend spent reading manuscripts, I found one book that stood out from the rest: Did She Leave Me Any Money?, by Alyce Cornyn-Selby, which appeared to have been published. When I picked up the little book, I found inside that, indeed, it had been put out in 1991 by something called “Beynch Press.” A handwritten note below the colophon explained that the novel was being turned into a film by Warner Bros. Barber told me it was the only one at the library to have received such attention: an agent or an editor had liked the manuscript so much he decided it had to be shared with the world. “It’s a pretty good read, too,” Barber said. A blurb from The Atlantic agreed: the “plot is unique, the writing style enticing.”

I cracked open the novel. It began:

“They’re going to take a ginzu to my gizzard tomorrow and I don’t care,” sighs Timothy, throwing his head back on the white hospital pillow. “At least I’m not in an office and I’m not anywhere near Travis Duncan.”

A pleasant Puerto Rican nurse smiles as she pours a dose of Maalox into a paper cup. “Dreenk cup!” she sings. Timothy smiles a broad smile under his salt and pepper moustache and holds the cup champagne-style. “And here’s looking at you, kid!” he says with great relish, downing the lemon-flavored goo with a great “Ah!”

The nurse fluffs his pillows and regards his happy face. “I haf never seen someone so hoppy to be ein the ’ospital,” she remarks. “Especially for ul-sirs.”

Okay, I thought — it’s not great. In fact, it’s pretty terrible. But here, at least, was a novel that could sell some trade paperback copies; here was some of the storytelling, suspense, and basic command of the English language that I had found many of the library’s other books lacked.

The next day, I went to visit Alyce in Portland, at the National Historic Hat Museum, a purple Victorian house just across the Columbia River where she works as a milliner. “Do you like hats?” she asked. “Because, dear, I’m very sick of hats.”

The living room was crammed with towers of them. As was the dining room, many of them in the colors of the Union Jack — they’d just had an exhibit on Queen Elizabeth’s hats — and an anteroom behind it. “This folder is buried under about seven hats,” Alyce told me before retrieving a manila folder of her writing and leading me to a small kitchen. She sat me at a table, itself the home of a tower of hats as well as some books (I Want My Hat Back; Miss Fannie’s Hat; A Writer’s Guide to Poison).

“I believe the best novels are in the minds of people who don’t have the time to write them,” Alyce told me, explaining that she had first begun to write Did She Leave Me Any Money? while she was the visual-communications manager for a city agency in Portland. “Faulkner? Hemingway? Their novels aren’t nearly as good as those that could be written if only people had the time to write them.”

Alyce wrote her novel in longhand, during meetings. She didn’t finish it, but it provided the spark for her authorial ambitions: she soon began to write other books, publishing a slew of self-help titles like What’s Your Sabotage? and Why Winners Win. She became so successful that she left her job and launched a career as a full-time motivational speaker. With her earnings, she bought a purple roadster race car and took a vacation. She wrote a book about that, too, called Hit the Road: Across America in a Topless Car.

But eventually, she returned to the novel. Wealth provided her the time to write. She locked herself alone in her house — didn’t return phone calls, ate only hard-boiled eggs — and stayed there until she finished what became Did She Leave Me Any Money? “You have to write a novel when the idea for it stalks you like a big, hairy beast at the dinner table,” she told me as we sat in the kitchen of the Hat Museum (where Alyce says she works just for fun). “You push it away, you push it away, but this big, slobbering, hairy thing just won’t go away. It keeps coming back. It’s got its tongue out. It’s drooling on you. And eventually you give in.” At this, she stood up and paced the room, gesticulating. She likened her self-help books to lettuce (“perishable products”) and explained that, with Did She Leave Me Any Money?, she wanted to create something that would last forever. “Sometimes it’s easier to make a dream come true,” Alyce told me, displaying a motivational speaker’s talent for corny aphorism, “than to kill that dream.”

So in 1990, after she finished the novel, she shared the manuscript with a man she had worked for as a motivational speaker, the CEO of Caterpillar. The CEO, a voracious reader, called a few days later and told her he “loved it.” He said he thought it would make a great movie and asked if he could share the manuscript with a friend, an attorney and movie producer named Ira Englander. Three days later, Englander made her an offer to turn Did She Leave Me Any Money into a script. “That’s when the bidding war began for my work,” Alyce said. Eventually Warner Brothers bought the rights to the film, and soon a film crew came to her neighborhood in Portland, where the novel takes place, and scouted out the Victorian home where it’s set. A check later arrived for more than $50,000, and Alyce was shocked. “It was kind of nuts for me.”

When her attorney told her New York publishers would now engage in a bidding war over her novel, she sent her manuscript to six big publishing houses. When, after several months, all of them rejected it, she thought, “What, are these people crazy! It’s going to be made into a movie!” She says she didn’t know then that when film companies option scripts, only about one in seven are actually made into movies.

As Alyce told this story, she started to bang the glass table in anger, sending a tower of hats crashing down. She didn’t notice them, and kept talking. “As it is, those New York publishing types, thanks to the fact that they head their heads up their asses, they screwed me!” She explained that, in the end, no one bought her novel. The blurb from The Atlantic that appears on her book in the Brautigan Library is from a rejection letter they sent her. Benych Press, it turns out, is a vanity press that she owns. “I don’t have one good thing to say about New York publishers,” Alyce added, frowning.

The sentiment was typical for Brautigan Library writers, and one the late author shared. At the end of his life, Brautigan — despite tremendous commercial success early in his career for works like Trout Fishing in America — couldn’t get his own work published, and he blamed the “eastern critical mafia” for brutal reviews and for ruining his reputation. Brautigan’s work isn’t widely read today — Thomas McGuane’s criticism in 1973 that Brautigan was an anachronism, “nothing but a pet rock! A fucking hula hoop!” has, perhaps, proved prophetic. Yet Brautigan has nonetheless become a patron saint for failed writers, a novelist and poet in whose work — and the peculiar library named after him — thwarted authors find refuge.

Or, at least, some of them do. “I’m a successful author,” Alyce told me when I called her recently to ask if she planned on attending the Brautigan Unconference, Creative Diddy-wah, and (inter)National Unpublished Writers Day. She explained that while she felt a great kinship with the library’s frustrated contributors, she wouldn’t be attending. “That conference,” she said, “is for failures.”

Single Page
is news editor at Vice magazine. His essay “Man Underwater: The democratic fiction of Richard Brautigan” appeared in the December 2012 issue.

More from Wes Enzinna:

From the December 2012 issue

Man Underwater

The democratic fiction of Richard Brautigan

From the January 2011 issue

Castro’s list

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Amount of aid Connecticut agreed in May to provide Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund:


A survey of national narcissism found that Russians see themselves as responsible for 61 percent of world history, whereas the Swiss put themselves at 11 percent

Marvel Entertainment's CEO exerts influence over the VA; Mike Pence lays out plans for The Space Force; Paul Manafort's trial reveals his tax evasion (and much more)

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today