BEFORE I SAY ANYTHING about William (“Gatz”) Hjortsberg’s massive biography of writer Richard Brautigan, Jubilee Hitchhiker, I should probably first check with readers to make sure they’ve even heard of the book’s subject.
If Brautigan’s name resonates with only a faint echo today, that wasn’t always the case. At one point, in the early 1970s, along with the likes of Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Brautigan was among the best-known and best-selling “cutting-edge” American writers in the world. His first and most popular book, Trout Fishing in America, a quirky prose work billed as a novel, was written in 1961 and, though not published until 1967, eventually sold about 4 million copies in various editions and translations.
Brautigan himself, decked out in cowboy hat, long blond hair, floppy moustache, love beads, jeans, vest, boots, and inevitably accompanied in book-jacket cover photos by a girlfriend of the moment, seemed more attuned to the 1960s version of the Age of Aquarius than just about any other author in the country. Like his older contemporaries Vonnegut and poet Allen Ginsberg, Brautigan became something of a campus lecture-circuit hero, and his shaggy-dog vignettes could be found regularly in the pages of the era’s generational bible, Rolling Stone magazine.
Along with fame, however fleeting, there were sizeable advances for subsequent books (mainly thanks to legendary Delacorte publisher, Sam Lawrence); peripatetic travel and sex (most often involving Japan, and Asian women); and the acquisition of properties at the artists’ colony in Bolinas, California, just north of San Francisco, and in Montana, near the town of Livingston. That’s where Brautigan became part of a loose group of writers, actors, and others known as “the Montana Gang.” Authors in this hard-drinking, gun-shooting, hunting-and-fishing, literary and movie-making crowd included Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, and biographer Hjortsberg himself. Film actors Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Rip Torn, and Harry Dean Stanton were among their drinking buddies.
Not bad for an oddball kid, raised in a Depression-era, single-parent, working-class family, living on the fringes of “white trash” culture in Tacoma, Washington and Eugene, Oregon during the tail-end of the 1930s and the subsequent Second World War. The adolescent Richard, who only learned the name of his permanently absent father when he was 17 (and even then, paternity remained a matter of dispute), and was early on alienated from his waitress mother, acquired a high school education and showed some nascent if ambiguous signs of literary ambition. But outside of school, he barely survived on sporadic hard-scrabble jobs (working in the bean and berry fields of the rural Pacific Northwest) and his fragile psyche gradually shredded. By 20, impoverished, lost, and obsessed with unrequited love for a neighbour’s underage daughter, Brautigan landed in an Oregon state mental hospital and was subjected to electro-shock therapy.
That was as far down as it got in the rags phase of this rags-to-riches-to-booze-soaked-rags saga. By the mid-fifties, Brautigan made it to San Francisco and was rescued by art, love and civilization. He arrived in between Allen Ginsberg’s famous public reading of Howl in 1955 and the 1957 publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, heralding a &ldq...read more