Thursday, August 31, 2000
At a reading of Ianthe Brautigan''s You Can''t Catch Death: A Daughter''s Memoir (St. Martin''s Press, $21.95), she alternated passages from her book with her father Richard''s last novel, An Unfinished Woman. As his literary executor, she decided to release the unpublished novel in tandem with her own story of growing up the only child of a famous writer, drinker and suicide.
Ianthe is a tall, attractive woman whose long dark hair and wide light eyes make her look much younger than 40. During her reading, I saw her as a Persephone figure, a girl who had descended to hell to meet her father and returned as a woman carrying a book that she dedicated to her own daughter. The form of her memoir, a sequence of short pieces, some of them only paragraphs, has the shape of an R. Brautigan book, and she begins and ends many chapters by quoting his writing.
She began writing 11 years ago, a process she understands as having saved her from permanently residing in the underworld: "That night my unconscious and I made a bargain. In the daytime I would believe that my father was dead and would try to live that way, while at night I was released and free to dream about: a father who refused to die; a father I perilously love almost more than my own life."
Ianthe explains that the title You Can''t Catch Death expressed her fear of being "infected" by suicide. I find a second sadder, more universal meaning in another reading of the title. Ianthe wanted beyond anything in the world to make things good and right for her father, to save him from his own hand.
Richard Brautigan shot himself in his Bolinas home in 1984. He was 49, Ianthe was 24. His body wasn''t found until weeks later and the gruesome details became common knowledge. If ever there was a double-edged legacy, it was the one Brautigan left to his daughter. "When I was about eight, he began talking about death," Ianthe writes. "At fourteen he told me the only reason he didn''t kill himself was that he didn''t want me to find his body. Each time he managed to pull himself together and go on once more while I could only stand by helpless."
To climb back up and into the world, Ianthe carried more weight than her father''s ashes; she had to heave the triple burden of a father''s fame, his elusiveness, his suicide. In 1967, when Trout Fishing in America appeared, Brautigan instantly became famous. He earned a lot of money, bought a home in Bolinas, a ranch in Montana, hobnobbed with other celebrities and had numerous girlfriends, though none for long.
One couldn''t bear reading You Can''t Catch Death if it were all unrelieved pain. After one wild drinking season in Montana, father and daughter were finally left alone. "Finally all the people were gone. I think my father was relieved. We waited for it to snow. These were the good times, the times in which my father was relaxed. We went to quiet dinners at people''s houses and rode over to Bozeman to go to the movies. During the day he worked in his writing room and then liked to check the mail and wait by the mailbox for my school bus to come rattling down the old highway."
After his fame in the 1960s and ''70s, critics panned his new books, calling him a has-been hippie novelist. He squandered his wealth, lost his most recent wife, and was drinking himself to death before he took up the gun. During his last, lonely months, he isolated himself almost completely. He had objected so strongly to Ianthe''s marriage that he cut himself off from her, hardly ever communicating. He left her no suicide note when he killed himself. Ianthe has written her book to try to catch the fleeing presence of the beloved father. But she will never catch him, any more than any of us can close the distance between ourselves and the dead.
Brautigan''s last book, An Unfinished Woman, is less a novel than an autobiographical stream-of-consciousness, a meditation on the deaths of friends, anger at his daughter for marrying at the age of 21. "I know it has been hard on her, but it has also been very hard on me because I love her very much."
In writing her memoir, the brave Persephone girl returned with her book. But the myth of the maiden stolen by Death has no simple, happy ending. It tells a cyclical story of light and dark, always the eternal wheel. Persephone, like Eve, has eaten the seeds of knowledge. For now Ianthe Brautigan is an author, wife, mother; there may be a time again when her lost father will call her back to whisper in the dark.