Richard Brautigan has made a name for himself by embracing the unusual and shocking, whether in his novels, his poetry, or his college-circuit lecturing. A late riser of the so-called counterculture movement of the late 1960s, he has written of strange utopias where people seem to talk to fish (''In Watermelon Sugar''), and of a pair of drifters living in ''paradise'' whose only concern is how to silence the croaking frogs in their pond (''A Confederate General From Big Sur'').
In his latest novel, his first in five years, the author has created a vibrant, memorable character - a young, somewhat eccentric boy who seems to delight in life's stranger offerings; funeral services laden with flowers, an old man who is falsely believed to be a ''kid-killer,'' people who ''bring their furniture with them ... when they go fishing.''
Although the story is told by a man who is ''looking back ... from the mountainside of a 1979 August afternoon,'' it is the young seventh grader who is remembering. Brautigan is experimenting, trying out the effect of combining two narrators in one, creating a tension between what is recalled and the way it is recalled.
In the most successful scene of the book, the technique works well. Here the young man describes life in the ''dingy yellow apartment that Welfare gave us,'' where his mother's fear of a gas stove becomes an obsession: ''My mother would wake up three or four times every night and check the stove for a gas leak ... sometimes in the evening I would sit in front of our broken radio and pretend I was listening to my favorite programs. My mother would pretend to read the Reader's Digest, but I knew ... that she was just sitting there, listening for a gas leak.''
In this book, Brautigan has uncovered a vivid, memorable character who engages our sympathies in a way few of his people have done before. His latest novel is surely one of his best.