The literature of lefty-ism was originally a response to an Anglo-centric canon, but in recent years it has spawned homogeneity all its own among the young, underclass intellectuals.
When you go to decorate your walls and your bookshelves this fall with your newfound loves of alternative culture, posters of the Bobs’ Marley and Dylan, with Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg and the cover of Led Zeppelin IV, the tendency will be to accept these monoliths as the end all and be all of music, art and poetry. They’re not.
In the great pantheon of literature-that’s-not-as-boring-you-thought-it-was, I think that people tend to fall into thinking that these works are the best the genre has to offer, but they forget that behind every great epitome, there is one behind it and another behind that.
“Flee the Angry Strangers” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Written by George Mandel in 1952, six years before “On The Road” was published, it is the first (and least known) novel in what would latter become known as the “Beat” movement and Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg would not have been able to write their seminal works without it. Although written in a style that is often parodied now – that of black turtlenecks and goatees, of daddy-o’s and hip cats – you can look past these archaisms to its charm and scope as it chronicles the lives of characters moving through the no-man’s land of Greenwich Village, heroin addictions and the beginning of the end of the age of Rockwell’s American values.
Indeed, once the awe of “On the Road” and “A Supermarket in California” has worn off, you can find your next high by looking a short distance around these omnipresent representations of the genre and find, well, something better.
If George Mandel was the first great Beat author, Richard Brautigan was arguably the last. He killed himself in 1984 at age 49 and published his most popular novel, “Trout Fishing In America” in 1967, nine years after the heyday of Kerouac and Ginsberg.
Its style is extremely experimental and one can see its unsung influence in books like “Everything Is Illuminated” and “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius.” Written in a sparing style that seems to borrow heavily from Zen aestheticism, it is a pastiche of the American gothic and the diaspora and fragmentation of the hippy movement from one solid, unified dream.
But his companion novel, “In Watermelon Sugar” published in 1968, is his most mesmerizing. Like I did, you might read it in one sitting.
It’s about the people that live in a wondrous place known as “ideath” and their lives cultivating watermelon and defending themselves against a group of tigers that threaten their existence. “In Watermelon Sugar,” like Brautigan himself, straddles that weird borderline between the beats and the hyper-realism of Vonnegut and Carver and the kind of experimental fiction that would gain in popularity with the advent of the likes of McSweeney’s and which still reigns king today.
After a while, no one text stands on its own apart from all others, while instead of a linear progression, from one artist or musician to another, it’s more like Wonka’s elevator, shooting off in every direction with no regard for walls or glass ceilings.