Brainard (1942-1994) was a painter, set designer and writer, a beloved figure of the Greenwich Village cultural scene of the 1960s and ’70s, and, terribly, a victim of the AIDS epidemic. Today he is best known as the author of one of the most original and — to use a debased word — enchanting books of our time: “I Remember” (1970).
In that endlessly entertaining litany, Brainard simply lists, one after another, the random memories that spring to mind when he murmurs the phrase “I remember.” For anyone of a certain age, the result is an astonishingly vivid evocation of childhood in post-World War II America. Brainard grew up in Tulsa, but many of his strobe-lit recollections will be familiar even if you spent your early years in Maryland or Ohio.
Let me transcribe a fair number of entries, partly for the pleasure of it and partly to convey just how Brainard keeps you turning the pages:
“I remember the first time I got a letter that said ‘After Five Days Return To’ on the envelope, and I thought that after I had kept the letter for five days I was supposed to return it to the sender.”
“I remember pop beads.”
“I remember radio ball game sounds coming from the garage on Saturday afternoons.”
“I remember zipper notebooks. I remember that girls hugged them to their breasts and that boys carried them loosely at one side.”
“I remember white bread and tearing off the crust and rolling the middle part up into a ball and eating it.”
“I remember ‘Your front door is open.’ Or maybe it was ‘Barn door.’ Or both.”
“I remember ‘Payday’ candy bars and eating the peanuts off first and then eating the center part.”
“I remember playing hopscotch without ever really knowing the rules.”
“I remember Dole pineapple rings on a bed of lettuce with cottage cheese on top and sometimes a cherry on top of that.”
“I remember crossing your fingers behind your back when you tell a lie.”
“I remember ‘Ma and Pa Kettle.’ ‘Dishpan hands.’ Linoleum. Cyclone fences. Shaggy dog stories. Stucco houses. Pen and pencil sets. Tinker Toys. Lincoln Logs. And red blue jeans for girls.”
“I remember after Halloween my brother and me spreading all our loot out and doing some trading.”
“I remember little wax bottles with very sweet liquid inside.”
“I remember ‘dress up time.’ (Running around pulling up girls’ dresses yelling ‘dress up time.’)”
“I remember big black galoshes with lots of metal foldover clamps.”
“I remember baby shoes hanging from car rear-view mirrors.”
“I remember ‘Silly Putty’ in a plastic egg.”
“I remember fantasies of being in jail, and very monk-like in my cell, hand-writing out a giant great novel.”
“I remember Kon-Tiki.”
“I remember egg salad sandwiches ‘on white’ and large cherry Cokes, at drugstore counters.”
“I remember ‘Double Bubble’ gum comics, and licking off the sweet ‘powder.’ ”
“I remember, after school, a period of three or four minutes of lots of locker doors being slammed. And long corridor echoes.”
“I remember Creamsicles and Fudgesicles and Popsicles that broke (usually) in two.”
“I remember the chocolate Easter bunny problem of where to start.”
“I remember red rubber coin purses that opened like a pair of lips, with a squeeze.”
“I remember ‘pick-up sticks,’ ‘tiddly-winks,’ ‘fifty-two pick-up,’ and ‘war.’ ”
“I remember ‘spin the bottle’ and ‘post office.’ ”
“I remember movies in school about kids that drink and take drugs and then they have a car wreck and one girl gets killed.”
As these examples show, Brainard presents his memories in a consistently flat, factual manner, eschewing commentary or the least smile of irony. Naturally enough, some of the entries — unrepresented here — deal with young Brainard’s bodily functions and sexual discoveries. But these, too, are part of growing up.
Much of Brainard’s other work might be loosely described as prose poem or humorous essay or watered-down surrealism. In “People of the World: Relax!” he draws comic-book figures and inserts unexpected thought and speech balloons into the panels. Thus a stalwart Dick Tracy is seen thinking, “Beware of boys in tight pants,” and Li’l Abner ruminates, “Put on a clean white shirt and relax.” Nearly every page of Brainard is similarly mysterious, inconsequential and fun. For instance, under “Chocolate,” one of “Twenty-three Mini-Essays,” he writes, “The story of chocolate is sweet and bitter and sometimes nutty.” That’s the entire mini-essay.
Such conciseness runs throughout Brainard’s work. Take this two-sentence short story: “Ten years ago I left home to go to the city and strike it big. But the only thing that was striking was the clock as it quickly ticked away my life.”
Or try the even shorter “No Story”: “I hope you have enjoyed not reading this story as much as I have enjoyed not writing it.”
“The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard” also offers capsule portraits of friends; travel diaries about Washington, New England and Bolinas, Calif.; a meditation on the fear of death; reflections on art; a list of Brainard’s favorite quotations (“Get it while you can” — Janis Joplin); and scores of oddly surreal observations and casually overheard phrases: “Things we see from car windows are remembered for many years”; “I love to embroider, but that’s about as far as I go.” In a section called “Nothing to Write Home About,” Brainard even presents his economic platform: “My idea about money is similar to the gypsy idea about money: that a man’s wealth is based not so much upon how much money he has, as upon how much money he has spent.”
The novelist Paul Auster provides an enthusiastic introduction to “The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard” and actually attempts a taxonomic analysis of the topics covered in “I Remember.” An appendix usefully identifies most of the writers and artists mentioned in the later pages. For instance, the poet Ron Padgett, who edited these pieces, first met Brainard in elementary school.
While “The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard” may not be a fully canonical Library of America title, it is certainly a superbly engaging bedside book, full of springlike exuberance, energy and wit. But, to quote Brainard, “Don’t take my word for it — ask any seal hunter.”
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/