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Memories of Rich

I was stunned when I saw the brief obituary in Publishers Weekly. ``Richard Brautigan,'' it said, ``whose `Trout Fishing in America' and other novels had a devoted following in the 1960s, was found dead October 25 in his home in Bolinas, Calif. He had apparently shot himself . . . . He was 49.'' There was a bit more, but I barely noticed because my mind stopped and then slowly moved backward to 1969. That was the first time I met him. Delacorte Press had just published three of his books in one hard-cover edition: ``Trout Fishing in America,'' ``The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster,'' and ``In Watermelon Sugar.'' I asked for his autograph.

He stood very quietly as we were introduced -- a tall man , ever so slightly stooped, with long blond hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and an imposing mustache that nearly obscured his mouth, except when he smiled. He looked like a gentle 19th-century outlaw of the Wild West visiting the 20th century. He was 34, and so shy; we went to a party together that evening and he barely spoke 10 sentences.

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As we became friends, his shyness melted and I saw how much Richard resembled his own writing: often gentle and beautiful, sometimes harsh, usually whimsical, and always imaginative. ``The sun was like a huge fifty-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit with a match and said, `Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,' and put the coin in my hand, but never came back,'' he wrote in ``Trout Fishing in America.''

One learned to expect the unexpected from Richard. I remember one evening, in the middle of conversation, when he suddenly jumped out of his chair and leaped around as if his clothes were afire. ``A pencil! Paper!'' he yelled until I handed them to him. Moments later, he looked up from his writing and smiled. ``Amelia Earhart Pancake,'' he said -- a poem he had been working on for five years. He said he wasn't sure it was quite right yet. Come to think of it, I have never seen it in print.

Richard, who did not drive, just loved taxis. I think he liked New York more for its abundance of cabs than for anything else. He thoroughly enjoyed stepping off the curb, waving a hand, and watching a cab pull up. I think he thought it was magic.

But then, Richard's world was magic. Being with him was like being in an enchanted forest. Reading his work is like that, even now. Fantasy and reality blend shamelessly; time is irrelevant; objects have lives and people become objects.

And, of course, there is the beauty. In his book ``Revenge of the Lawn'' is a ``lost'' chapter from an earlier work in which he talks about a special place: ``Often I think about Rembrandt Creek and how much it looked like a painting hanging in the world's largest museum with a roof that went to the stars and galleries that knew the whisk of comets.''

And that's how I shall remember Richard.

A regular monthly column in the Book Review.

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