Richard Brautigan’s “Revenge of the Lawn” begins with the narrator describing his grandmother, who in the ‘20s was a bootlegger in the state of Washington who had the entire county under her control. But this story isn’t about her. The narrator goes on to describe his grandmother’s lawn, or rather lack thereof, and then Jack, an Italian real estate agent who lived with the grandmother. He was responsible for letting the lawn die, and he hated the lawn, which would always put nails in his car. The narrator then explains that the lawn was the pride and joy of his grandfather, a psychic who correctly predicted the date World War I would begin but was shipped off to an insane asylum a year before he got to see his prediction come true. He believed the lawn was the source of his powers, but Jack didn’t take care of it and let it die. The narrator then tells three stories about times the lawn, or rather the creatures in it, wreaked havoc upon Jack. In the first story, one of the bees that swarmed the pears that would fall of the tree and rot in the yard crawled into Jack’s wallet and stung him when he tried to pay for food at the store. In the second story, a bee crawled down Jack’s cigar and stung him on the mouth, causing Jack to drive the car into the house. And in the third story, the grandmother discarded some mash (which is used to make alcohol; evidently this was part of her bootlegging business) in the yard, and the geese who lived in the garage started eating it and got blackout drunk. The grandmother, thinking they were dead, de-feathered them and put them in the basement to sell and eat; the geese were actually not dead, and they woke up and went outside into the yard just as Jack pulled in. He was so disturbed by the sight of the de-feathered geese that he drove the car into the house again. The narrator ends describing his earliest memory, which is of Jack cutting down the pear tree that the bees gathered around and burning it.
The chronic tension of the story is that the narrator’s grandfather, who is in an insane asylum, cared deeply for the lawn, while Jack does not and let it die. The acute tension is that the lawn and the creatures who live in it are now tormenting (sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally) Jack as revenge for letting it die (hence the title).
The first thing I tracked was personification of the lawn, beginning with the very title, “Revenge of the Lawn,” which implies that the lawn has some sort of sentience. When the lawn is first introduced, the ground itself seems to be alive:
Jack hated the front yard because he thought it was against him. There had been a beautiful lawn there when Jack came along, but he had let it wander off into nothing. He refused to water it or take care of it in any way.
Now the ground was so hard that it gave his car flat tires in the summer. The yard was always finding nails to put in one of his tires or the car was always sinking out of sight in the winter when the rains come on.
But, as the story progresses, it becomes not the ground but the animals who live in it who are enacting their revenge:
The bees somewhere along the line had picked up the habit of stinging Jack two or three times a year. They would sting him in the most ingenious ways.
And the drunken geese are written so much like people, it’s easy to forget that they’re birds and not humans:
I guess they came to a mutually agreeable decision because they all started eating the mash. As they ate the mash their eyes got brighter and brighter and their voices, in appreciation of the mash, got louder and louder.
And in the end, Jack ends up cutting down and burning the pear tree. The pear tree’s tormented Jack only tangentially, by producing the rotting pears that attracted the bees. But it’s either what Jack feels is tormenting him the most—or perhaps a final attack against the lawn.
This personification is what makes the entire plot work. I would consider this to be a magical realism story, and the very premise is that the lawn enacts revenge against the man who let it die. Were it just a normal lawn, it wouldn’t be able to enact its revenge, and so there would be no story.
The other technique I tracked was the use of anecdotes to tell us about the story’s characters. This story is told entirely through anecdotes, as if the narrator is stream-of-consciously telling some of the stories he’s heard at family reunions. But highlighting the entire story wouldn’t make much sense, so I zeroed in on anecdotes that are used specifically for the purpose of characterization. Each major player in the story—the grandmother, Jack, and the grandfather—are introduced with anecdotes:
[My grandmother] of course was no female Al Capone, but her bootlegging feats were the cornucopia of legend in her neck of the woods, as they say. She had the county in her pocket for years. The sheriff used to call her up every morning and give her the weather report and tell her how the chickens were laying.
[Jack] was not my grandfather, but an Italian who came down the road one day selling lots in Florida.
He was selling a vision of eternal oranges and sunshine door to door in a land where people ate apples and it rained a lot.
Jack stopped at my grandmother’s house to sell her a lot just a stone’s throw from downtown Miami, and he was delivering her whiskey a week later. He stayed for thirty years and Florida went on without him.
My grandfather was a minor Washington mystic who in 1911 prophesied the exact date when World War I would start: June 28, 1914, but it had been too much for him. He never got to enjoy the fruit of his labor because they had to put him away in 1913 and he spent seventeen years in the state insane asylum believing he was a child and it was actually May 3, 1872.
He believed that he was six years old and it was a cloudy day about to rain and his mother was baking a chocolate cake. It stayed May 3, 1872 for my grandfather until he died in 1930. It took seventeen years for that chocolate cake to be baked.
These anecdotes have no connection to the main plot, but they give the reader insight on the characters. They are the closest we ever get to an actual description of them (the one exception being the mention that the grandfather was short, which then leads to an anecdote about how he believed being short made him closer to the lawn and therefore able to absorb its psychic powers). We never know what the characters look like (aside from the aforementioned shortness), and the narrator never takes the time to tell us the character’s traits directly. And yet, through these stories we know quite a bit about who they are as people. The grandmother, as a bootlegger with the whole county under her control, is probably pretty tough and not to be messed with. Jack, as a door-to-door real estate salesman, is probably pretty sketchy and sleazy. And the grandfather, as an insane psychic, is probably, well, pretty weird, and possibly rather morbid as well, if his idea of “dreams coming true” is a bloody war.
In my own writing, I might want to imitate this story’s anecdotal structure. Instead of having a linear plot, “Revenge of the Lawn” is just a series of anecdotes to combine to form a larger storyline. This allows the narrator to talk about quirky details that have little or no effect on the plot itself but help give the reader a greater sense of this absurd family.
Writing Exercise: Write a story consisting of several small anecdotes revolving around a central idea (a location, a set of characters, etc.) that have similar themes.
- Does Jack have a character arc? Does he change throughout the story, or have an opportunity to but choose not to?
- Is this more Jack’s story or the lawn’s?
- Are the acute and/or chronic tensions truly resolved?