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It is elegantly balanced verse, on a theme that the author himself announces as commonplace, but that he redeems into at most charm by a set of carefully graduated metaphors, from the cheap use of "love" early on to the pointedly anti-poetical "pan full of frying flowers" at the end, dropped in to make sure we don't take the dreamy tone too seriously.
The prose pieces one can't call them novels or even fictions—they may well go down in literary history as Brautigans now number four, and, to this reader's taste, they are much more impressive than the poetry. But they are not easy to describe.
They are always set in California, they are always first-person narratives, the narrator is someone who looks and sounds—well, like Brautigan, one has to suppose. Brautigans involve people just living around in a landscape that is vaguely compounded of shacks, scenery, and catch phrases; they have slightly improbable ways of getting by, but as they don't need much and aren't wildly ambitious, their needs are easily met by the usual raunchy, hand-to-mouth means.
They do seem to understand one another pretty well, and thus come to live in a kind of Brautigan subculture into which recognizable America—fearful suspicious, apologetic, hair-trigger violent—obtrudes only occasionally. One mark of their separateness that a reader is first bothered by and then, after a while, becomes rather attached to, is the use of an occasional phrase in what Gogol would call its "hemorrhoidal" sense—all-purpose, asyntactical, repetitious, skewball.
The people of In Watermelon Sugar live near a watermelon sugar factory, one of whose byproducts is a flammable something called watermelontrout oil. Described in these terms, the Brautigan probably sounds like a collection of rather silly and pointless verbal jokes; and it's doubtless possible to get so worked up over these conscious absurdities that one forgets to see anything else.
But In Watermelon Sugar is a good place to jump off on one's Brautigan readings, precisely because it's so apparent that there is a great deal to it. It seems to me a fable, but also a nightmare, of innocence. Our nameless narrator is a sweet, simple, well-meaning person; practically the first thing he tells us is that he has a gentle life.
Sometimes he is a writer, sometimes he is a sculptor: But he is troubled by all sorts of violence, some actual, some recollected. There used to be tigers in watermelon sugar, rather talkative and explanatory tigers, who it turns out devoured the narrator's parents one day. And worse than all these for our narrator, though less dramatic, is the basic problem of the book, Margaret and Pauline.
The problem is simply that it used to be Margaret who slept with the narrator, and now it is Pauline. Margaret does not take this change at all well, to our narrator's great distress.
She takes to hanging around inBOIL and his gang of nasties; then, when, out of bravado, they cut themselves to pieces with jackknives, Margaret goes off and hangs herself from an apple tree.
Fred, the narrator's friend, is very sorry; Margaret's brother feels real bad; Pauline regrets it deeply; the narrator sincerely wishes she hadn't done it; but there is not much to be said, now that it is done. They bury her, after the traditional watermelon sugar fashion, in a lighted glass coffin set in the river bed, and the book ends with preparations for the traditional funeral dance, a waltz in the trout hatchery.
Like Agnes Varda's lovely movie Le Bonheurwhich it resembles in many ways, this fable of Brautigan's seems to be deeply ambiguous; you can read it forward with Pauline and the iDEATH people as the civilized element or backward with inBOIL and pals as the outcast-pariah heroes or neutrally, with a shrug of the shoulders for poor Margaret.
Our narrator, with his aspirations toward a "gentle life," can't conceivably come off very well, and the simple fact that nobody in the book blames him for Margaret's death may be read as an invitation to the reader to do so.
The end of inBOIL and cronies comes about when they understand the principles of the place better than those who live there, and prove the point by slashing themselves thumbs, noses, ears, eyes gorily to pieces. So they are evidently more victims than heroes if that's our choiceand the iDEATH ideal, to which the narrator and Pauline are snugly accommodating themselves at the end of the book, looks more dubious than ever.
Yet to dissect it in this way, into allegory, is also to wrong it; for all its quirkiness and funkiness y'know what I mean? Trout Fishing in America is the earlier and, in this reader's judgment, the next best Brautigan; but one must note respectfully that it seems to have had a better press than In Watermelon Sugar.
Probably this is because it feels like a bigger book. I found it more diffuse and episodic, a little more forced in some of its fun, a little more disposed to rely on obscenity for easy effects. Without any of the structure of In Watermelon Sugarit is wilder and more fantastic in its use of language, more eloquent and various in its accounts of some very quirky people—a kind of visionary comic-book apocalypse about fresh-water Americans and their nature.
If it gets less than top marks with this accountant, that's probably due to a basic preference for more controlled books which I couldn't begin to justify logically. Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugarwhichever one happens to prefer, are a pair of vigorous and original books, and the crown of Brautigan's achievement so far.
The problem here is simply that, being unsure of itself, it tries too hard. In essence the book amounts to an extended version of those stories that begin, "I met this guy in North Beach last summer, you'll never believe it, was he wacky, just let me tell you.
So it's clear, when one looks back over the line of Brautigans from last published to first, that the author has been growing in assurance, in control, in ambition. But the books are still very different from one another, especially in organization; and it wouldn't have been at all easy to predict, from the three previous ones, what the fourth book, just published, would be like.
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