“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I will tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.” These are the opening lines of In Watermelon Sugar, the third novel by Richard Brautigan (1935–1984), a poet who was published twenty-three times in Rolling Stone between 1968 and 1970 and who has been called the last of the Beats. The next lines read: “Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out.”
Brautigan achieved literary fame after his second novel, 1967’s Trout Fishing in America, captured the hearts of the counterculture and sold two million copies. He went into decline in the late seventies and early eighties and died by suicide in 1984 at age forty-nine. His books had a groovy design, which he controlled, and a kind of Hemingway-influenced minimalism. They’ve sometimes been called lightweight or dated, but his cult status has held nearly forty years after his death, so it seems his work will stand the test of time.
In Watermelon Sugar, my favorite of Brautigan’s books, is a funny little dislocated story about people living in a commune called iDEATH. The novel’s plot, such as it is, concerns possessive and materialistic urges leading to tragedy. In this story, the mysterious substance of watermelon sugar makes up shacks, lives, a dress (which “smelled sweet because it was made from watermelon sugar”), a chair, a state of being, and many things besides. Mixed with trout oil, watermelon sugar powers lanterns and other machines. Its definition slips around, but Brautigan is saying that the things we love form an interchangeable currency at the heart of our lives—it’s all watermelon sugar in watermelon sugar. It doesn’t quite make sense, but it feels true. Read More