Illumination by Kool-Aid
The Kool-Aid Wino by Richard Brautigan is a quaint short story about a mangy Depression Era boy with a very obscure sort of appeal. Initially, it is a humorous bit about some broken kid from a “very large and poor German family” with a tendency to ritualize the preparation and storage of severely diluted and unsweetened Kool-Aid. Any reader would struggle not to chuckle when reading The Kool-Aid Wino. Something about “wet diapers in various stages of anarchy” and the romantic ceremony of making “precious Kool-Aid” is very funny, but why?
Technically speaking, Brautigan makes use of a few key rhetorical devices, namely auxesis, understatement, and procatalepsis, for humorous ends. After being woken up by his friend, the Kool-Aid wino was found laying under a “tattered revolution of old blankets” still entirely dressed. “For what reason did the Kool-Aid Wino sleep in his clothes?” you may ask: “Why bother?” he had said. “You’re only going to get up, anyway. Be prepared for it. You’re not fooling anyone by taking your clothes off when you go to bed.” Here, the Kool-Aid Wino unwittingly used procatalepsis, which is a way of asking a rhetorical question and responding to an anticipated rejection of it. Short, sweet, and to-the-point is Brautigan’s trademark style and this bit of dialogue is all of those things as well while it also points to the main character’s generally apathetic demeanor.
After hopping out of bed, the boy walked to the kitchen and “stepp[ed] around the littlest children, whose wet diapers were in various stages of anarchy.” Juxtaposing understatement, or making something seem less important than it actually is or seems to be, and auxesis, or magnifying the importance of something by referring to it with a disproportionate name, is complimentary and works towards a comedic effect. Stepping around young children whose diapers are in need of attention helps us picture a boy growing up in depressing surroundings and ignoring his siblings in pursuit of his appetites. This may not be particularly endearing, but it is an exquisite example of what life for those on the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder is like.
On the way to and at the store we begin to get a sense of these boys’ imagination. For example, the narrator drew attention to a red birthmark on the grocer’s head that looked like a car. He “reached into [his] pocket and gave the nickel to the grocer. He nodded and the old red car wobbled back and forth on the road as if the driver were having an epileptic seizure.” The overstatement of an epileptic seizure hints to the fact that these two boys are still young enough to imagine and find joy in the simplest of things, which is another element that makes this story all the more charming.
Juxtaposing rhetorical devices is a common practice for Brautigan because the matter-of-fact tone he employs would come across dry without it. For example, many authors would decribe a mud puddle with some flowery adjectives if it were important, but Brautigan does not. Instead, he puts it this way: “First he got a gallon jar and we went around to the side of the house where the water spigot thrust itself out of the ground like the finger of a saint, surrounded by a mud puddle.” If you look closely, you will notice that there are only three adjectives in this sentence, and even those can also act as nouns. Yet, this sentence is highly indicative of what Brautigan is getting at because of the way that he glorifies the water spigot and defames its surroundings. Sure, it’s funny, but it also speaks to the importance of Kool-Aid in this boy’s life.
“He was careful to see that the jar did not overflow and the precious Kool-Aid spill out onto the ground. When the jar was full he turned the water off with a sudden but delicate motion like a famous brain surgeon removing a disordered portion of the imagination. Then he screwed the lid tightly onto the top of the jar and gave it a good shake. The first part of the ceremony was over.”This passage is riddled with auxesis again, but it does not come across as forced. “Precious Kool-Aid” is a simple example of this technique, but the picture of a “famous brain surgeon” is a little more creatively elaborate. Comparing Kool-Aid production to brain surgery is a big stretch, but in this case it is a perfect analogy for the amount of care that this poor boy put into his watery brew. Referring to the process as a ceremony caps off this interesting description.
As he makes his way back to the chicken shack, the Kool-Aid Wino gets interrupted by his mother asking him to do the dishes, which he casually brushes off, with a short response back. As they enter, he says to our narrator, “The dishes can wait.” Evidently, “Bertrand Russel could not have stated it better.” Again, Brautigan exaggerates something simple for humor as well as emphasis. In this case, we get a sense for the boy’s apathy about everything that isn’t diluted sugar water.
If you’ve been reading along, you might still be wondering what is so important about this Kool-Aid. In the end, Brautigan pulls back the curtain and reveals his point: “He created his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.” The same rhetorical devices are used in this final passage, so there is nothing particularly new here, but this direct revelation can be many things for the reader. For some, it’s just a conclusion; for others, it may be a surprise that prompts them to go back and re-read the story as “illumination” ties the imagery of the finger of a priest, the leader of an exotic cult, and the ceremony together. Theoretically, readers will look at this concluding sentence differently, but overall, it makes us laugh.