Thomas Morris On:
1/3 1/3 1/3 by Richard Brautigan
“1/3, 1/3, 1/3″ is to my mind the most perfect American short story. The two-line opening paragraph tells you immediately what it’s going to be “about”, but the story itself – and its burning afterglow – evades synopsis. We’re talking Big Bang stuff here – a universe exploding out of a small, compressed experience.
There is something of what would become the Dirty Realist mode operating in the opening five paragraphs: we encounter the narrator living in a “cardboard-lined” shack; the single-parent mother living on welfare in a ‘run-down house’; and the “novelist” who lives in a trailer beside the sawmill pond – and all this told to us in plain enough prose. As readers we enter the story at a moment of a baldly familiar conceit – these unlikely band of characters have collectively devised a scheme with which to make some money. But as the story progresses, Brautigan’s doleful, poetic, humour slyly rises to the surface, and the story feels oddly authentic in a way that so much fiction doesn’t.
I personally can’t help but think this all actually happened; that Brautigan is the “I” who lived in the “cardboard-lined shack”, and that he is relaying a true account of a real event, about people who really exist. It’s difficult to pin down how he does this, but I think it has something to do with the pervading feeling that this is a story that the author is still trying to make sense of.
It is Brautigan’s tragicomic vision – his sense of the absurd, and his willingness to allow things to remain messy and unresolved – that underpins the huge force of his writing. When Brautigan invites you into the “novelist’s trailer”, he asks you to look in one direction and diverts you with a chuckle – while all the while he is rustling in the cupboard, lining up something quietly-devastating to clobber you with.
And through this elegant approach to pathos (though one feels it’s not so much an approach for Brautigan; rather it’s just his natural way) he gives dignity to his characters. In the hands of another writer, the story could become a condescending exercise in authorial superiority, but the story’s majestic ending – its inclusiveness – is so generous and so desperate that one is moved to genuine sympathy for all involved.
To think that Brautigan achieves this in a story of only 1700 words, well, I don’t know what to say, but I will say this: I’ve been reading and re-reading this story for almost a decade now, and I still feel shivers every time I read those thunderous final lines.