7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
One of the best novels from the '60s counterculture,
This review is from: In Watermelon Sugar (Paperback)
'In Watermelon Sugar' may be Richard Brautigan's best book. It's certainly one of the most completely characteristic: even at the time of its publication critics were struggling for terms of comparison. Its reputation may have suffered because Brautigan's immense early popularity aroused suspicions about his quality; it may be that its short length is confused with slightness. Nonetheless, whatever the reservations one may have about his other work, 'In Watermelon Sugar' needs no apologies.
Written in a deliberately artless, almost affectless style and in very short chapters, the novel - a novella or long short story, really - seems to invite fast, uncommitted reading. The reader who is prepared to slow down and ponder the implications of Brautigan's simple sentences will find the effort repaid.
It's a measure of the book's hidden complexity that it has been received as both a utopia and a dystopia. It's probably fair to say that that paradox reflects the author's deep ambivalence about the style of living emerging in the late '50s and early '60s on the American west coast.
Set at an uncertain distance in the future, 'In Watermelon Sugar' introduces us to iDEATH, a community that fuses aspects of contemporary hippie utopianism with an authentic American surrealism. The unnamed narrator - who actually has no name - relates in a meandering manner some of the history of iDEATH and the odd customs of its inhabitants: the conflict with the 'tigers', a living remnant of the almost vanished older world; his own attempts to write in a world in which books are mainly fuel; his relationship with the women Margaret and Pauline; Margaret's fascination with the Forgotten Works and its treasure trove of enigmatic artefacts; and the tragicomic insurrection of the curmudgeonly inBOIL. Gradually Brautigan constructs out of hints a picture of a world that has grown out of the ruins of our own, and in which a great deal has been sacrificed in the name of calm and content.
Published in 1968, but written in 1964, 'In Watermelon Sugar' was Brautigan's third novel and the last of those written in the '60s that made his reputation. I find it the best of the three: intelligent and sad, and well worth the brief investment of time in reading. This is the book that best explains why Brautigan was once reviewed respectfully alongside such other American fabulists as Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme. Perhaps one day he - or this book, at least - will see a posthumous revaluation.