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Oh Captain, My Captain

Waltzing with Richard Brautigan


At the suggestion of friend Rick Ardinger of Boise's Limberlost Press—and after a bit of prodding—Greg Keeler wiped the dust from memories more than 20 years old to remember writer Richard Brautigan in Waltzing with the Captain: Remembering Richard Brautigan.

Novelist and poet of such works as Trout Fishing in America and The Pill Versus the Springhill Mining Disaster, Brautigan has been called the Mark Twain of 60s counterculture, a writer far ahead of his time. In Waltzing, however, Keeler leaves the business of Brautigan's biography and any analysis of his work for others. Instead Keeler gives us his side of the story, immortalizing not Richard Brautigan the famous author, but Richard Brautigan the man who shot holes in his kitchen clock, rubbed snow on his face to help him look sober before morning classes and spent countless nights fumbling around on the back roads of Montana's mountains with a bottle of Dickel and Keeler at his side.

An English teacher at Montana State University when he met Brautigan, Keeler describes him as a "larger-than-life fog" until their first meeting when Brautigan threw his longhaired Siamese cat in Keeler's face. Fortunately, Keeler responded appropriately and the two became fast friends.

"He was like an older brother," Keeler said in an interview with Boise Weekly. "He took me into his confidence and I was hooked, charmed or whatever you want to call it." Waltzing takes us through all the gritty details of their friendship without sugarcoating the bad or exaggerating the good. Whether Brautigan was shooting holes in a book whose author heavily criticized his work or whether he was hatching elaborate plans to circumvent Montana fishing laws, Keeler gives us a sense of each of the captains: Captain Random, Captain Darkness and eventually, Captain Death.

At times the Captain was "secure, famous and confident." He had worked with John Lennon and called Peter Fonda a friend. He was the kind of guy who had Jimmy Buffet and Jim Harrison over to his house (and also the kind of guy who, after feeling snubbed by them, coerced Keeler into a revenge plot that required moving their cabin by hitting it with Keeler's car).

At other times Brautigan was abrasive and rude with friends and strangers. He could be harsh on people who knew him, making friends the brunt of his jokes and criticism, and didn't hesitate to silence someone who seemed to be hanging around him for his celebrity. But despite such eccentricities, Keeler cracks the mystery of Brautigan one step at a time. While Brautigan was a little rough around the edges, he had some very endearing qualities below the surface.

"I understood that much of his venom was a result of alcohol," said Keeler. "It removed his filters and he was like an orphan child lashing out at a world that had abandoned him." In Waltzing, Keeler tells of Brautigan apologizing for turning his cruelty toward him by signing over his author's copy of So the Wind Won't Blow it All Away. Though Brautigan could smooth over personal troubles with an appearance by Captain Kindness, he had a difficult time making his own peace with critics of his work.

Because he was an English professor, Keeler often ran up against people who were cruel to Richard and his work. "I spent a lot of time trying to help him bridge the gap between his pristine work, his delicate sensibilities and an unrelenting literary establishment," said Keeler.

And years after the Captain's suicide, Keeler has spent some time putting Richard Brautigan, the man who made everyone around him feel like they were the only one who counted, into print. Fans of Brautigan will love Waltzing with the Captain: Remembering Richard Brautigan for Keeler's fresh perspective and behind-the-scenes feel.

Greg Keeler will be performing some of his trademark funny songs and reading from Waltzing With the Captain: Remembering Richard Brautigan at the Log Cabin Literary Center (801 S. Capitol Blvd.) on Thursday, May 20 at 7 p.m. The cost is $4 for members and $6 for non-members.