The review of the biography Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan in this month’s Harper’s begins with the reviewer’s visit to The Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, both a tribute to the author and the actualization of an idea Brautigan wrote about in his novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. In the novel, there’s a library called The American Forever, Etc., which functions as an asylum – as one character calls it – of rejected manuscripts. So too does The Brautigan Library function this way, currently holding a capacity 291 unpublished books, though it plans to go digital, making room for more.
The Abortion, which I borrowed from my parents right after reading the Harper’s piece, is a love story set in San Francisco, San Diego and Tijuana. The bulk of the action takes place in the library in San Francisco, where our thirty-one year old narrator – sensitive, long-haired and nameless – has been living and working in near-total solitude for years, having not stepped beyond its glassed front doors since assuming his post (his predecessors befell all kinds of unusual fates). As the sole on-site employee of the library, he’s responsible for receiving the books that the authors must deliver by hand, then recording their basic information into a ledger. It’s the task of the authors themselves to shelve their books where they see fit.
It’s a powerful and compelling idea, a library for rejected manuscripts, bound up as it is with the prospect of failure that haunts most writers. It also reminds me of something Pauline Kael once wrote: “men have an inalienable right to be untalented.” The library is a testament to that right. Our narrator welcomes the multitude of failed writers who walk through the library’s front doors. He cares about them and their unloved creations because he too is a writer, or so it’s suggested, and so his fate could easily be theirs (in one self-referential moment, a writer named Richard Brautigan delivers a book, one of several he’s been delivering over the course of the narrator’s tenure).
In the meantime, however, our narrator is committed to his sinecure, that is, until a beautiful but tormented young woman named Vida walks in with a book: “She had a fantastically full and developed body under her clothes that would have made the movie stars and beauty queens and showgirls bitterly ooze dead make-up in envy.” Her body, it turns out, is the subject of her book. It’s a burden for her, a magnet for unwanted attention.
What follows is an evocative account of them falling in love. The light touch exhibited in these intimate passages I’m tempted to attribute to Brautigan’s immersion in the summer of love. Which is where the Historical part of the title comes into play.
To read the book now is to acquaint oneself with a relic of a bygone era, when Playboy magazine was in its heyday (there are multiple references) and the Beatles had just released Rubber Soul (there’s one reference). Needless to say, the narrator and Vida are hippies, but in an endearing, self-conscious way. Brautigan emphasizes their hippie-ness by contrasting them to a conservative young couple they encounter on a bus from San Diego to Tijuana, where Vida is to undergo the titular abortion.
In the Harper’s review, we’re told that Brautigan eventually moved to Montano to distance himself from the hippy movement, while subjecting his writing to a process of “dewhimsicalization.” The move would precipitate his descent into alcoholism, attended by a steady artistic output either published and panned by critics or rejected outright by his editor. Though he’d live to disavow the whimsical quality of his earlier works, which brought him fame and success, the charm of The Abortion is its whimsy. The novel reads like a leisurely paced fable or fairy tale, by turns sincere and playful, if a little cheeky in places. At its heart is an affirmation of love and literature.