Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan
By William Hjortsberg
(Counterpoint, 852 pages, $42.50)
The 1960s certainly produced writers, though they were writers of the moment, that moment being a decade of “social change,” political turmoil and war following the Kennedy assassination. Despite its turbulent milieu, the literature of the time curiously lacks substance. Some great novels were written, but they only chronicle the time in indirect ways: Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) is a book about rebellion, but not about the zeitgeist, per se; as is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), an anti-war novel parts of which are set in World War II and record the massive bombing of Dresden. Even Norman Mailer — a darling of the New York literary establishment — despite such achievements as An American Dream (1965) and The Armies of the Night (1968), spent most of the hedonistic decade playing the fool in the public eye: running for mayor of New York City, getting arrested for stabbing his second wife, and helping to found the Village Voice, among other distracting pursuits. In the end, the ephemeral ’60s American literary moment drifted off like marijuana smoke on a breeze. Such was the fate accorded the work of Richard Brautigan, who as the 1960s ended was, to quote his friend Thomas McGuane, “the baby thrown out with the bathwater.”
Brautigan (1935-1984) is the subject of William Hjortsberg’s Jubilee Hitchhiker, at 852 pages a bit overblown as it outlines the life of a minor American writer. Yet the book is a well researched testament to “how much living you can do in forty-nine years.” Hjortsberg, a novelist and screenwriter, was a close friend of Brautigan’s and toiled upon this labor of love for twenty years.
Richard Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington. By the age of ten he and a younger sister named Barbara Ann had been abandoned by their father Bernard Brautigan, and then left by their mother Mary Lou to be raised by neighbors. A reuniting with Mary Lou led to a nomadic life in the Pacific Northwest with haphazard schooling (though Brautigan graduated from high school with good grades in Eugene, Oregon, after seeing his first publication — a poem — in the school paper), and brushes with the law culminating in a month-long stay at Oregon State Hospital at age twenty.
Considering his circumstances, Brautigan was a well-read youth, who particularly admired the work of Ernest Hemingway. His literary aspirations in the late 1950s found him living in sometimes homeless poverty in San Francisco and on the periphery of the city’s Beat culture. Brautigan read his poetry on the street and at local bohemian gatherings, and wrote novels through the city’s uproarious 1960s: A Confederate General From Big Sur (1964), In Watermelon Sugar (1968), and Trout Fishing in America. The latter book was published in 1967 (an early manuscript dated to 1960) and has sold four million copies to date. At the time this solved Brautigan’s financial problems and instantly made him a literary countercultural icon — the hippie Mark Twain.
Brautigan is simultaneously easy and difficult to read. Serious critics have long dismissed him as an obscurantist lightweight. A review of Trout Fishing in America in the New Yorker offered the insight that the writer wrote “children’s books for adults.” His fans are delighted by his sense of humorous satirical wordplay and almost poetic prose, though his novels are plotless, lacking serious characters and coherent narratives, as if literary convention would spoil the fun. The poetry, such as found in The Galilee Hitchhiker (1958) was inspired by the Beats and is insubstantial parody. The haiku is a favorite form. The author appears on the cover of many of his books, usually in the company of women (and sometimes children) dressed in anachronistic garb, with the longhaired writer sporting a high-crowned cowboy hat. This eccentricity only added to Brautigan’s legend as a literary hustler.
Hjortsberg met Brautigan after a California reading, and this led to the latter’s association with the 1970s Livingston, Montana literary scene as Hjortsberg counted as friends McGuane, Jim Harrison, and the painter Russell Chatham. Brautigan was a half dozen years older and the relationship was initially that of a teacher to a student. Hjortsberg was at the time a Stegner Fellow, enrolled in Wallace Stegner’s prestigious writing program at Stanford University. At their first meeting, the two writers stayed up all night talking over a bottle of bourbon. Brautigan moved to Livingston in 1972 and would eventually have an affair with Hjortsberg’s wife Marian as the Hjortsbergs marriage came apart amidst the crazy times of “the Montana Gang.”
Brautigan married twice. He wed Virginia Alder in Reno in 1957. The union produced a daughter, Ianthe Elizabeth Brautigan, born in San Francisco in 1960. The author eventually divorced Virginia in 1970. In 1977, Brautigan married Akiko Yoshimura, a woman he met on a visit to Japan. They settled in his house on Pine Creek near Livingston, but divorced in 1979. Thanks to the times and his fame, though, the writer never lacked for female companionship.
The bucolic Big Sky country was Brautigan’s undoing as a writer. He lacked the financial hardship that had plagued him in his San Francisco years, yet a penchant for self-destruction got worse. Brautigan was an alcoholic who had a hard time dealing with literary fame and attendant personal relations. Trout Fishing in America had made him famous, and all his books were in print and selling briskly, yet the writer was an unhappy man. His work suffered, and he devoted himself to drinking, fishing, random sexual encounters, and a fascination with firearms.
Brautigan published a novel, The Hawkline Monster: Gothic Western (1974) among other books during his Montana years, following his same modus operandi of ironic wordplay, but the books were inferior to his 1960s work, thus anticipating Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (who had published some of Brautigan’s early work in City Lights Journal) quote about the writer: “As an editor I was always waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer. It seems to me he was essentially a naïf, and I don’t think he cultivated that childishness, I think it came naturally.”
He occasionally shot-up his Livingston home (television sets, clocks, books by authors he despised) during drunken binges: McGuane called it “The lead Disneyland.” Brautigan didn’t drive, and employed the writer Greg Keeler as a chauffeur to take him to bars in the Livingston-Bozeman area. Brautigan kept a ramshackle trailer in Bozeman where he entertained female Montana State University literary groupies after bibulous nights at the bar of the Elks Club.
Being at loose ends, Brautigan also traveled extensively. He was in and out of San Francisco and Bolinas, California, where he owned a home; there was an extended New York trip with Hjortsberg; and multiple trips to Japan, an oddly favorite destination where his books sold well in translation. But he produced no important writing in his last years, his alcoholism and depression caught up with him, and he was a suicide in Bolinas in October 1984, shooting himself in the manner of his hero Ernest Hemingway, though with a .44 Magnum rather than a shotgun. His decomposing body wasn’t discovered for a month.
His ambiguous suicide note read, “Messy, isn’t it.” That seemed to describe his life, his work, his end.
William Hjortsberg’s Jubilee Hitchhiker, though well written, tells us more than we need to know about this sad — though inherently American — life.