“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.
***We walked over to the highway and down the highway past mud puddles and sawmill ponds and fields flooded with rain until we came to a road that went across the railroad tracks and turned down past half a dozen sawmill ponds that were filled with black winter logs. We talked very little and that was only about her check that was two days late and she had called the Welfare and they said they mailed the check and it should be there tomorrow, but call again tomorrow if it’s not there and we’ll prepare an emergency money order for you. “Well, I hope it’s there tomorrow,” I said. Next to the last sawmill pond was a yellow old trailer up on blocks of wood. One look at that trailer showed that it was never going anywhere again, that the highway was in distant heaven, only to be prayed to. It was really sad with a cemetery-like chimney swirling jagged dead smoke in the air above it. A kind of half-dog, half-cat creature was sitting on a rough plank porch that was in front of the door. The creature half-barked and half-meowed at us, “Arfeow!” and darted under the trailer, looking out at us from behind a block. “This is it,” the woman said. The door to the trailer opened and a man stepped out onto the porch. There was a pile of firewood stacked on the porch and it was covered with a black tarp. The man held his hand above his eyes, shielding his eyes from a bright imaginary sun, though everything had turned dark in anticipation of the rain. “Hello, there,” he said. “Hi,” I said. “Hello, honey,” she said. He shook my hand and welcomed me to his trailer, than he gave her a little kiss on the mouth before we all went inside. The place was small and muddy and smelled like stale rain and had a large unmade bed that looked as if it had been a partner to some of the saddest love-making this side of The Cross. There was a green bushy half-table with a couple of insect-like chairs and a little sink and a small stove that was used for cooking and heating. There were some dirty dishes in the little sink. The dishes looked as if they had always been dirty: born dirty to last forever. I could hear a radio playing Western music someplace in the trailer, but I couldn’t find it. I looked all over but it was nowhere in sight. It was probably under a shirt or something. “He’s the kid with the typewriter,” she said. “He’ll get 1/3 for typing it.” “That sounds fair,” he said. “We need somebody to type it. I’ve never done anything like this before.” “Why don’t you show it to him?” she said. “He’d like to take a look at it.” “OK. But it isn’t too carefully written,” he said to me. “I only went to the fourth grade, so she’s going to edit it, straighten out the grammar and commas and stuff.”
There was a notebook lying on the table, next to an ashtray that probably had 600 cigarette butts in it. The notebook had a color photograph of Hopalong Cassidy on the cover. Hopalong looked tired as if he had spent the previous night chasing starlets all over Hollywood and barely had enough strength to get back in the saddle. There were about twenty-five or thirty pages of writing in the notebook. It was written in a large grammar school sprawl: an unhappy marriage between printing and longhand. “It’s not finished yet,” he said. “You’ll type it. I’ll edit it. He’ll write it,” she said. It was a story about a young logger falling in love with a waitress. The novel began in 1935 in a café in North Bend, Oregon. The young logger was sitting at a table and the waitress was taking his order. She was very pretty with blond hair and rosy cheeks. The young logger was ordering veal cutlets with mashed potatoes and country gravy. “Yeah, I’ll do the editing. You can type it, can’t you? It’s not too bad, is it?” she said in a twelveyear-old voice with the Welfare peeking over her shoulder. “No,” I said. “It will be easy.” Suddenly the rain started to come down hard outside, without any warning, just suddenly great drops of rain that almost shook the trailer. You sur lik veel cutlets don’t you Maybell said she was
holding her pensil up her mowth that was preti and red like an apl! Onli wen you take my oder Carl she said he was a kind of bassful loger but big and strong lik his dead who ownd the starmill! Ill mak sur you get plenty of gravi! Just ten then caf door opend and in cam Rins Adams he was hansom and mean, everi bodi in the thos parts was afrad of him but not Carl and his dead dad they wasnt afrad of him no sur! Maybell shifard wen she saw him standing ther in his blac macinaw he smild at her and Carl felt his blod run hot lik scalding coffee and fitting mad! Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a flower flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.
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