Book Review: In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan (1968)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Desperate for something unlike any other New Wave SF experiment, I came across Richard Brautigan’s surreal post-catastrophe novel In Watermelon Sugar (1968). Brautigan, best known as a Counterculture poet and the author of Trout Fishing in America (1967), spins a poetic thread simultaneously elegiac and nightmarish. More a sequence of short linked scenes, In Watermelon Sugar charts the memories of a nameless narrator (N) attempting to write a book about the community and inhabitants of iDEATH. Brautigan juxtaposes the terrifying calamities of N’s past–including his memories of his parents consumed before his eyes by the human-like Tigers and the violent rhetoric and self-immolation of inBOIL–with N’s tender memories of his blossoming love for Pauline.

The Geography of a Luminous Place

The story takes place in the community (commune?) of iDEATH with its 375 inhabitants, a common eating area, shacks around the perimeter, luminescent tombs along the bottom of a latticework of creeks, a trout hatchery, watermelon patches, and statues of vegetables. In the distance under a sun with ever-changing colors the Forgotten Works, a vast/undefined dump or ruin of a pre-disaster city, reaches like distasteful mold further than anyone wants to travel (69).

In my view, iDEATH is one of the iconic SF places. Brautigan’s prose adorns the local with vivid signifiers. The tombs of children shine forth “with pale lights coming up from the bottom of the river” (26). You can see the deathly inhabitants “lying there in their coffins, staring from beyond the glass doors” (92). Scattered amongst the shacks are sculptures of vegetables and important events in the community’s past. Bridges with Janus-like heads (children and trout) crisscross the rivers that permeate the pine woods. A place that manifests peace. A place where simple work keeps those you love alive. A place where one can overcome the traumatic scars of the past and build anew.

The Past as Entropy Generator

“The tigers and how they lived and how beautiful they were and how they died and how they talked to me while they ate my parents, and how I talked back to them and how they stopped eating my parents, though it did not help my parents any, nothing could help them then, and we talked for a long time and one of the tigers helped me with my arithmetic, then I went away. I returned later that night to burn the shack down” (8).

In Watermelon Sugar formulates the undefined past as an alien world pulsating with destructive entropic forces. Even the objects excavated from the Forgotten Works cannot be described: “it looks like one of those things inBOIL and his gang used to dig up down at the Forgotten Works. I’ve never seen anything like it” (7). inBOIL, whose name represents his interior turmoil, is forever drawn to the wreckage wrought by the past. He spends his days digging in the Forgotten Works, drinking “whiskey brewed from the things they found” (65), and spouting “violent denouncements” (76). N’s first love Margaret, perceived by the community at iDEATH as tainted by her connection inBOIL and his excavation, likewise obsesses over the accumulation of undescribed past objects: “I just like forgotten things. I’m collecting them” (78). The past serves to re-anchor people to past mistakes. Over time inBOIL’s chaotic invocations turn into action and with slurred speech and increasingly jerky movements (62) descends on iDEATH. And the place where inBOIL violently immolates himself becomes a generative locus–a trout hatchery.

inBOIL’s destructive path is tied to his nostalgia for the tigers. Perhaps anthropomorphic humans or primitive survivors of the unknown catastrophe, the Tigers live in the woods and consume the living (including N’s parents). They are tantalizing beings. They sing. They tell stories. They might represent the destructive yet creative forces of humanity. At inBOIL’s death, he seeks to embody these tendencies with a final act of violence.

Final Thoughts Before the Fleeting Light Shifts

In Watermelon Sugar is a successful experiment. Brautigan’s deceptively simple prose creates a surreal landscape redolent with haunting imagery and emotion. N’s narration reaffirms the importance of making meaningful connections in the present and the dangerous pull of nostalgia that ties us forever in the past. There’s horror in these pages. There’s love in these pages.

Recommended for fans of Richard Brautigan, 60s experimental fiction, and the more out there manifestations of the “ambitious, self-consciously artistic sensibility” of New Wave SF.


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29 thoughts on “Book Review: In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan (1968)

  1. Drug-addled dystopia set in a place I went to at the time it was written about…and still I only give it 3.5 of five! I usually like stuff more than you do…somehow something’s askew in the Universe. (The same thing that keeps you from being able to comment on my site, permaybhaps.)

    • Oh I loved it. The prose cut. The handful of images (glowing tombs, piney woods, Forgotten Works, the communal table with food made from too many carrots, the tigers) powerful and haunting. And maybe inBOIL and Margaret are right to be transfixed by the past… and we would all drink ourselves into a stupor if everything disappeared. And maybe iDEATH isn’t as utopic as N makes it all out to be. But it seems to be a world of simple pleasures and few rules and community…. can’t be dystopic, can it?

  2. I remember TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA, which was still a mild sensation when I was first buying books (and even briefly selling them, when I worked at Waldenbooks in high school (and there are some stories there, some quite personal!)) … I ended up being somewhat put off by that book, which seemed very much the sort of ’60s stuff that honestly you needed to be doing the same drugs he was doing to appreciate. (Or so I thought at the time, not a drug user then or ever.)

    I realized he had written some SF back then, and was intrigued a bit but never followed up. Your review is one of a couple such recently that make me think I ought to try IN WATERMELON SUGAR. I did look up his life story, which seems in the end pretty sad.

    I’d say that in a way this vaguely puts it in RIDDLEY WALKER territory, and I must say I very much doubt it stands with that great novel.

    • I enjoy both novels but find them quite different — in part because they were published so far apart (12 years). Brautigan’s is far more a commentary on the American West Coast CounterCulture and the growing commune movement, etc. This gives it a very 60s, back-to-the-land, let’s all live together and help each other and utterly ignore the wreckage of American Institutions and traditions feel.

      In Watermelon Sugar is more a sequence of prose poems than novel and I suspect a novella by word count. Walker is more overtly dystopic/harsh, FAR more connected to the world as we know it (the place names are derived from real places, etc.), and a more difficult to tackle experiment. This, despite the structure and prose poem format, is an approachable form of experimentalism. Brautigan does not explain anything. His community of iDEATH could be considered a utopia (if a functioning commune is something you want to live in). There’s no reference to real places (although he might be referencing his experience at Bolinas), no reimagining of a particular region or place (although I suspect you could argue it’s California)…

      And to be clear, I’d give Riddley Walker a 5/5.

    • I’d say that in a way this vaguely puts it in RIDDLEY WALKER territory, and I must say I very much doubt it stands with that great novel.
      …but what does, or could? RIDDLEY WALKER is kin to ULYSSES and comparatively little climbs to those heights.

  3. I’ve read some of Brautigan’s poems and short stories — enough to enjoy his askew take on the world. I’ll have to give “In Watermelon Sugar” a read. And “Riddley Walker” — I had never heard of the novel, before the title in these comments snagged on my eyes.

    • Russell Hoban is a wonderful author. My pseudonym “Joachim Boaz” partially comes from his magical realist novel The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973). Riddley Walker is cut from a radically different cloth. It’s a dystopic future England with a weird form of invented English that represents radical transformation of society post-apocalypse. Also brilliant!

          • If I’m honest, I’d find it hard to say. His books did change over the years – the earliest had more fanciful, hippie-ish elements to them, and the later ones were perhaps more rooted in a kind of reality. Yet one of my favourites is a later Brautigan, “Sombrero Fallout” which has plot strands running alongside each including one about the start of a story which is discarded by the author and falls into a waste paper bin where it carries on a life of its own. It’s very clever, very fun and very sad too, when you know that underlying the strand of an author missing the girlfriend who left him is probably much of the mess of Brautigan’s life. It’s a while since I read Hawkline so I can’t say much, but I recommend you read them all…. ;D

            • Yeah, this one feels profoundly “un-rooted.” While definitely drawing on his experiences in the West Coast commune culture etc., it is deliberately not connected to any place.

              Sombrero Fallout sounds like a blast. I, of course, would prefer some speculative elements so I can review it here on the site. — hence my mention of The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974)

  4. I read a couple of Brautigan books back in the 1960s because that was the in thing to do back then, but I don’t remember which ones. Both Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar are titles I remember but recall nothing about them. Many years ago his name popped into my mind and I wondered why I never saw his books anymore. Your review temps me to try him again.

  5. This sounds intriguing. I’ve only ever read one of Brautigan’s book: “A Confederate General in Big Sur”. And that was so long ago I remember precious little, except perhaps a vague sense of liking it. Too many books I’ve read over the years fall into this category.
    I am further intrigued by the triad: iDEATH, inBOIL and the Tigers. The first of these strikes me as gesturing at ego death (?), whereas the latter appear redolent of, on the one hand, the obsessive acquisitiveness of our commodified society, and on the other hand an attempt to represent an agonistic, “destructive yet creative” humanity freed of the aforementioned obsessions. Am I onto something here or am I speaking shit as usual!? I may even have to track a copy down, though to be honest I am more keen to (finally!) crack a copy of Ridley Walker.

    • Anthony, I appear to have missed this wonderful comment — sorry!

      I suspect you’re on the right track with the names. What’s intriguing about the commune itself is that everyone still has their own individual shacks scattered around the outside, and then they come into iDEATH (which is, I assume, only the name for the inner common building) where they take turns cooking and gather for meals and conversation.

      As for inBOIL, yeah, he boils within, unable to sever himself from the wreckage of the past, desperate to literally drink it up the past in all its destructiveness (he turns things he finds in the ruins into whiskey). As for the Tigers, like Borges’ Tiger that he remembers from his youth, they represent some untamed fascination beyond the borders (be that humans who follow different ways or some anthropomorphic beings that represent the violence excoriated from the community) — even in their violence they are fascinating…

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