There are good, standard, engaged reviews; but every once in a while, like never, or just this once, a reviewer (name of Harry Ricketts; Wellington academic, poet, distinguished man of letters) comes along and writes a book review which is beyond meta and just kind of far-out, also brilliant.
The reviewer was excited when Steve at The Spinoff asked him to review a reissue of Richard Brautigan’s 1976 novel, Sombrero Fallout. In the mid-1970s, when he lived in Hong Kong and thought about walks on the wild side, and even took a few, the reviewer had been a Brautigan fan. With an Aussie friend called Phil and a lot of Sara Lee cheesecake, he had spluttered his way through Trout Fishing in America, The Hawkline Monster and Revenge of the Lawn. They were slim and slippery and surreal and sometimes simply silly. Not like The Magus or The Alexandria Quartet or Giles Goat Boy, his then favourite modern novels. The little poems in The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt were slippery and surreal too, and helped him wise up to the fact that contemporary poetry didn’t have to look or sound like “Church Going” or the Crow poems or “Lady Lazarus”.
He had not been quite so much of a fan however as to have read Sombrero Fallout. He wondered what a Brautigan novel would read like now that he lived somewhere with ngaio trees and was old, didn’t smoke anymore and had grandkids. So the email from Steve at The Spinoff came out of a blue sky like spring rain. He was still excited when the book arrived in the post (which used to come every day except Sunday, and further back even used to come more than once a day, but now only comes three times a week, if you’re lucky). But now that the book had actually arrived he felt rather differently. Now he did have to write the review.
Sombrero Fallout, this copy of it at least, was glad to be sent out for review. After all, what book doesn’t want to be reviewed? But when it arrived at the reviewer’s house, the novel wasn’t at all sure it wanted to be reviewed by this particular reviewer. It immediately had a bad feeling about him, particularly when he put it in a pile with books about the Romans and books about cricket. What the novel realised at that moment was that it wanted to be reviewed by someone much younger and preferably female, someone like the cool Japanese woman called Yukiko with the long black hair who has just broken up with the ‘very well-known’ American humourist (not entirely unlike Brautigan) and who spends the entire novel asleep and dreaming. The novel was not so eager to be reviewed by an old poet-academic who would immediately start reminiscing about when he was young and lived in Hong Kong and ate too much Sara Lee cheesecake.
Luckily, the reviewer was about to go on a research trip to England to do research and coincidentally to see some of his kids and grandkids. That meant he could put Sombrero Fallout in his suitcase and tell Steve he was going to read the novel and write the review while he was away. Neither of the last two things happened. The reviewer spent time in libraries with manuscripts and other books, and also saw his kids and grandkids. The late summer weather was so mild, even warm, that on weekends they walked in the leafy London parks and collected pockets full of conkers, which at school kids are no longer allowed to attach to a piece of string and take turns whacking the hell out of, because a shard might hit somebody and there might be a health and safety issue, and someone might get sued.
The novel which longed to be reviewed by a young female reviewer, preferably Japanese with long black hair, but it wasn’t really that fussed ‒ strawberry blond would have been fine, even turquoise ‒ had to remain cooped up in the suitcase for the entire trip with the poems of Gavin Ewart. It was an opportunity for self-reflection and the copy of Sombrero Fallout thought a lot about what an amazingly smart, lyrical, compassionate, funny, sad and political novel it was, even forty years on. And what a smart etc writer its author was. For instance, there were two entirely different time- and plot-lines. One involved the “heart-broken” American humourist sitting in his flat, obsessing obsessively about the Japanese woman and about whom she was making love to, while simultaneously the Japanese woman was asleep in her flat, dreaming and alone except for her purring cat: “It was a black cat and could have been a suburb of her hair.” And later: “The cat’s purring was the motor that ran the Japanese woman’s dreaming.”
That time-line only stretched between 10pm and 11.15pm of the same evening, though that hour and a quarter occupied many of the novel’s 177 pages (or parts of those pages; most chapters were very short). During those pages not much happened but how it didn’t happen was often sad-funny or funny-sad and sometimes both together. The Japanese woman, who “had a beautiful laugh which was like rain water pouring over daffodils made from silver”, dreamed about her dead father. He had been a diplomat and committed “hara-kiri with a letter opener” when he discovered his wife was having an affair with “a high official at the Boeing aircraft plant in Seattle” who became her stepfather and called her “China Doll”. But in her dreams her father wasn’t dead: “He was there in essence but did not possess physical representation. He was everything in the dream that you couldn’t see.”
The American humourist (who was apparently “very good in bed” and didn’t have a sense of humour) was so unhappy obsessing about the woman and who she was making love to, that “after hours and hours of it” (actually a much shorter time) “he was very hungry”. So he thought of eating a hamburger from the stand at the corner, but he had had two the day before and didn’t want another. So he thought about having a tuna sandwich, but he was too worried about the mercury. Finally he thought about having eggs, but there weren’t any in his flat. In fact, there wasn’t anything at all to eat in his flat. Later on, he found a strand of her black hair in the bathroom and took it back into the living room, sat down on the couch: “He was so fascinated by the long single strand of black hair that he did not overflow his mind with fantasies about it, turning it into a hundred varieties of his imagination.” At least, he didn’t overflow his mind until a chapter later he dropped the strand of hair on the floor and “thought that he would go mad if he didn’t find that strand of hair right now”.
Eventually Steve emailed the reviewer, asking him where the review was. The reviewer was reading another book entirely by then but he didn’t like to tell Steve that because it might not look good and Steve might never ask him again, even if he did finally manage to write the review of the book he hadn’t read yet. The book the reviewer was reading instead of Sombrero Fallout was a biography of Syd Barrett called A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman. For about a day, the reviewer felt as though he could go on Mastermind and answer any question about Syd Barrett. (What was Syd Barrett’s real name? Where did he go to art college? What was the name of the last band he played with?)
Then the reviewer finally read Sombrero Fallout. It seemed important to decide whether Syd (real name Roger) would have liked it. He decided he probably would have. Not because of the failed love affair between the American humourist and the Japanese woman. Syd had apparently had several failed love affairs, and several of his lovers later remember him as sweet and charming (though sometimes he could be violent), but the reviewer thought Syd didn’t seem to have been that interested in love (though this was the 60s when all you needed was love). None of Syd’s cryptic songs were love songs, more odd character studies like ‘Arnold Layne’ about a cross-dresser or ‘See Emily Play’ (whose meaning still no one could agree on. See Google). The plotline the reviewer thought Syd would have liked was the other plotline, seemingly nothing to do with the American humourist and the Japanese woman. This plotline which also occupied many of the 177 pages of the novel was about a sombrero and how one day it suddenly “fell out of the sky and landed on the Main Street of town in front of the mayor, his cousin and a person out of work.”
Fame is so unpredictable.
The reviewer thought Syd’s and Brautigan’s stories had a certain similarity. Both were intensely charismatic and quirky and had their bright moment of counter-culture fame before disappearing. But whereas Syd went mad and retreated to Cambridge to live with his mum and became a famous recluse and shone on as a crazy diamond casualty-icon and died at 60, Brautigan’s star simply waned and he shot himself at 49 and people mostly stopped reading him (until now). Besides, Syd was English and only wrote a few songs over a very short period, whereas Brautigan was American and wrote over 20 books over nearly 20 years
Both the copy of the novel and the reviewer ended up thinking that the story of the sombrero was more interesting than the failed love affair. What happens is that the sombrero just suddenly falls out of the sky one day and lies there on the street stared at by the mayor, the mayor’s cousin who wants to be mayor and a man who wants a job, and ‒ this detail is emphasised ‒ the sombrero is -24 degrees and it is size 71/4. This, the reviewer discovered, is the beginning of a story the American humourist was writing but he was crying so much that he couldn’t go on and tore up the story (this was back in the day of typewriters) and he threw the pieces into the waste-paper basket. But then the pieces of paper made “a big decision” and decided “to go on without him”.
The mayor’s cousin decided to pick up the sombrero to give it to the mayor and win his favour. But he drew back when he felt how cold the sombrero was. The man who wanted a job also decided that if he picked it up and handed it to the mayor the mayor might give him a job. But in fact, neither of them, both now crying, ever did pick up the sombrero and hand it to the mayor nor did the sombrero itself move during the rest of the story, though it did drop in temperature before rising again. And while the three men continued not to pick up the sombrero a small crowd gathered, it got larger, it started to whisper, the mayor shouted at the two men to stop crying, shouted for the police, the crowd got agitated, and they started hitting each other, and … But, both the copy of the novel and the reviewer complained at the same moment, to say what happened next would be a plot-spoiler and that would be to break the first commandment of novel-reviewing. So the rest of the plotline about the sombrero (which was black) must remain untold, though it is very surprising and satisfying and Norman Mailer had a walk-on part, and Syd would probably also have enjoyed it.
In the last chapter, called “Japan”, the American humourist is still holding the single strand of black hair and is making up a Country and Western song about “loving a Japanese woman”.
In the penultimate chapter, called “Theater”, the Japanese woman is still alone and dreaming and the cat is still purring. But the purring has now entered her dream and in the dream her father is now dead, “but it didn’t make her unhappy. It was a fact.”
Sombrero Fallout (Canongate, $24.99) by Richard Brautigan.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.