single header

If you want to comment online, use the Reply form following this commentary.

Then and Now

Howell Hurst People, People Politics


One sunny day about 1970 or 71, I was drinking wine at a San Francisco North Beach outdoor café named Caruso’s, if I remember it right, with Richard Brautigan. If you don’t remember him, he was at that time a highly-acclaimed writer of genre-bending novels and poetry. Someone once called him, “The Last Hippy.”

I think of him now because his style of writing American English was similar to the insanely crazy writing now pouring forth from The White House and the various news media. Except Brautigan was an artist. He had created his unique style to communicate good will and friendship with what I would describe as disconnected syntax.

Syntax, if the word’s not familiar to you, is essentially the specific way a writer chooses to construct a scaffolding of words to form (usually) grammatical sentences. But Brautigan didn’t much care for pure grammar. Instead, he sought to connect with his readers on a warm human gut level.

Today’s politicos and media reporters aren’t working for good will as much as for good thrill. And our politicians and journalists aren’t artists as much as they are vaudevillian entertainers. Getting warm with people isn’t their goal. Getting noticed by them is.

I bring all this up for two reasons:

One: In an out-of-the-way-place, Morro Bay, California, where I find myself for the moment, I just bumped into a brand new copy of Richard’s unusual novel: “Trout Fishing in America.” Rereading it, its style baffled me for a while, and then I got it. It was about the warmth thing, about getting close to his readers and letting them know he liked them. And hoping they liked him.

Two: It strikes me as remarkable that in the hands of such an artist chaotic writing indeed touches a human spot inside you. It’s the opposite of the chaos politicians, their lawyers, and journalists create. They often don’t produce much but a bitterness in your ear.

Brautigan’s goal was to obliquely communicate real human intimacy. The politicians’ goal is to divert your attention from reality by confusing issues. The journalists’ goal is much more complicated. Sure, they all seek Pulitzer Prizes, but the good ones actually try to make some sense out of chaos.

I don’t consider myself either an artist or a journalist. I think of myself more as a craftsman. I try, at least, to craft in my commentaries some kind of a roller coaster of words that put you to thinking. That make you wonder what I’m really trying to say. And reflect on what you think about it.

And in my fiction – well, to understand that, you have to visit my website and read the first chapter of my novel, “Subterfuge,” or the first story in my short story book, “I Can’t Hear The Drums Anymore.” And, if they pique your interest, order the current Kindle version, which fairly soon will be available in a print copy.

But let me not lose the thread of what I’m trying to say in this rambling bit of palaver.

Richard and I, as we drank our wine almost a half-century ago, talked about every subject in the world. The wine took its toll, of course, and probably at the end we made no sense at all, but one thing was true. It was all warm and human.

The Vietnam war was still on then, and surely constituted much of our talk. But politics was not the center of our conversation. It was more a striving for mutual good will in a world that commonly does not understand good will. That’s a writer’s cross to bear. We mostly hope our talking and writing will affect people positively.

The contrast: That’s what I’m trying to get at here. Mr. Trump and his entourage, as the supreme example, are the opposite of artists and of craftsmen. They do not strive for warmth or intimacy with their audience. They seek to pull wool over their eyes. It is all about their own egocentric absorption with themselves.

They are so near sighted in their self-admiration that they abandon all respect for their broad audience. They can’t even acknowledge the factual lies they tell. They are, psychologically, the most confused people on the planet. Not intellectually honest.

I prefer ordinary people. Always have. They are also not intellectual, and they can easily be confused, but mostly they try to be true and do good to one another. In that, they are admirable. They fail a lot. Shoot each other now and then. Cuss a bit too much, but at bottom I believe they try to tell the truth the best they can.

Richard Brautigan would have a lot to say about today. And he’d be here to say it – if he hadn’t had a personal problem that caused him to take his own life at an early age. He liked to drink too much.

But the point I’m having a hard time getting out is the wish that his spirit, nurtured in the Summer of Love, as it was known in San Francisco and across the country, might still have a seed germinating somewhere in our stringent, tongue-tied 21st Century: this infernal Tower of Babel that seems to engulf us and numb our senses with its ridiculousness.

Today is such a far cry from all the hope our generation of the 60’s strove for. There is little talk of hope today. It’s a hateful time for many. It’s a false time for others. For many, a fearful one.

The push for power and control over people, to the point of endlessly continuing wars and killing, creating millions of homeless refugees. could hardly be worse than it is. Saving homeless refugees, here and abroad, seems not to be on anyone’s mind in America, we are so obsessed with our middle class, middling selves.

When Richard got up from our wine-filled afternoon and stumbled down North Beach’s Broadway, he abruptly stopped stone cold, turned back to me, and barked out: “The trouble with you, Hurst, is you’re too serious. Learn how to lighten up.”

A decade later, having lived ten years in Boston, I returned to San Francisco about the time Richard put a 45-caliber pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. That has always been indelibly marked in my memory.

He told me I was too serious. And I’m the guy still here living and writing. I can only hope that a sliver of his literary panache may have slipped into me during our wino afternoon that day.

Maybe I can retain my seriousness about writing of what I perceive to be America so tangled in incoherence it makes me sick to my stomach, and still develop a sense of style. One that lets my words acquire a larger share of that wonderful human capacity for a sense of humor.

But I am utterly dismayed at what America has become and what it is presently going though. Words mean nothing to some people. They chew on them as if they were chunks of bubble gum. Trying to blow the biggest bubble. Waiting for the applause when it pops.

Truth means nothing to them. They ignore the meaning of words to promote themselves and gain the headline. I can’t stop being serious about America and what I write. I want to be hopeful again. For all of us. But instead, I am fretful.

I’d dearly enjoy joining Brautigan again for another glass of wine and more talk. He was a brotherly highlight of the 60’s. We could use a writer like him today to balance against the rabidly inarticulate chaff we are being barraged with by so many of our pretend business and political leaders.

It’s a hell of a time we’re living in. An awful one. It can’t be meaningfully discussed in 140-character Twitterbites. That’s for sure. I wish I could do as much honor to our time as Richard did to his.

All I know how to do is keep plugging on – one word at a time.






Return to Blog

3 thoughts on “Then and Now

  1. Your story of your friend from the 60s was itself a warm and personal story. Your blog did ramble about without coming to a conclusion, unfortunately. You have lived an interesting life, met many people and done many things, like sail a boat, produce a movie, and much more, I’m sure. Yet you say all you know how to do is write one word at a time. A sad and tired resignation. Unnecessary. I bet that if you got an offer to consult with the federal government on a project that paid you $50,000, you would come up with a long list of things that could be done to address many of the problems we have in our country and around the world, in the 21st Century. Please don’t put yourself down. Come up with a list of recommendations!

    1. Margie,

      I shall keep on plugging.

      I just put down a deposit on a tiny house
      rental in Pacific Grove, CA. I’m setting up a
      tiny video studio to start video taping all
      my commentaries for Youtube.

      Will be sending a Link to you and those
      who occasionally read my commentaries.

      Thanks for your encouragement.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.