JUBILEE HITCHHIKER: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan

William Hjortsberg
Counterpoint ($42.50)

by Mark Terrill

Two decades in the making, over 850 pages in length and four pounds in weight, printed in fine print and reaching a total of somewhere around 600,000 words, Jubilee Hitchhiker appears to be every bit of the epic, all-inclusive biography that Brautigan fans have long been anticipating. And things start off with a bang. In the very first paragraph of the first chapter the reader is plunged into the immediate scenario of Brautigan’s suicide on September 16th, 1984, at the age of 49. The Winchester Western Super X .44 Magnum hollow-point bullet fired from the nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver explodes through Brautigan’s skull, splattering brains and blood across the stacks of manuscripts and notebooks on the work table in the living room on the second floor of his three-story house in Bolinas, California.

Hjortsberg spares no details in his grisly depiction of the scene, which reads in part like a forensic report, reminding the reader of the cold, exacting prose of the central section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The details do not let up as Hjortsberg describes the slow decay of Brautigan’s body until it was finally discovered on October 25th, well over a month later. The rest of the chapter is devoted to descriptions of the autopsy and cremation, interspersed with the responses to his suicide from his daughter and various friends, with quotations from many of the obituaries and newspaper articles that followed his death. Much like Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s great parable of alcoholic self-destruction and losing battles fought with personal demons (echoing in many ways Brautigan’s own tragic destiny), Jubilee Hitchhikerbegins with the ending.

How could it come to be that one of the most popular cult figures of the 1960s, author of such well-known and bestselling books as Trout Fishing in AmericaA Confederate General from Big SurIn Watermelon SugarThe Abortion, as well as several other novels and collections of poetry and short stories translated into more than twenty languages which went through numerous editions and printings, could commit suicide in his own home and lie there undiscovered for well over a month, as though the rest of the world had forgotten about him and was no longer concerned with his whereabouts or well-being?

Since Brautigan’s initial burst of creative energy in San Francisco in the first half of the ’60s, in which he wrote the above titles that secured his reputation as one of America’s most unique talents, and his subsequent rise to international fame in the early 1970s, Brautigan had gradually fallen on hard times. Alcohol, marital problems, dwindling book sales, lagging self-esteem, and increasing doubts about his ability as a writer further complicated those hard times. Add into this volatile mix Brautigan’s erratic social behavior, a notorious penchant for skirt-chasing, a chameleon-like personality with mood swings as extreme as the fabled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a megalomania that alienated even the best of his friends, a passion for firearms, and latent obsessions with bondage and suicide, and the long, lonely silence in which Brautigan’s body began to decompose in his house in Bolinas becomes easier to understand.

Following the sobering introductory chapter of Jubilee Hitchhiker, Hjortsberg takes the reader back to the very beginning, delineating the roots of Brautigan’s family, his birth on January 30th, 1935, in Tacoma, Washington, the splitting up of his parents (Brautigan never knew his father), and his youth in the Pacific Northwest with his mother and younger siblings in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The family moved several times, as Brautigan’s mother went through various jobs and relationships with other men, often experiencing near poverty and witness to alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Brautigan was an avid reader and a big fan of the movies, which he attended frequently. While in high school in Eugene, Oregon, he first read the works of Basho and Hemingway, two writers whose clipped, concise style had a lasting influence. Encouraged by the alert and intelligent teacher of his creative writing class, Brautigan began writing poetry and had his first poem published in the school newspaper in 1952. From then on he never stopped writing poetry.

After graduating from high school, Brautigan worked in a packing plant and pursued his two passions: fishing and writing. When he was twenty he fell in love with Linda Webster, who was only fourteen, and whose mother, Edna, became a surrogate mother and confident to the young budding writer. The love was not returned and Brautigan’s frustrated passion turned into a smoldering obsession. Periods of poverty, illness, and depression further exacerbated the irresolvable tension until Brautigan, in an act of sheer desperation, threw a rock through the window of a police station in order to get himself arrested. The arrest resulted in Brautigan being committed to the psychiatric ward of Oregon State Hospital for thirty days, where he was subjected to twelve sessions of electroshock therapy, and where he celebrated his twenty-first birthday.

After his release from the hospital, Brautigan lingered briefly in Eugene and then packed his meager belongings and hit the road, and after a short interlude in Reno, Nevada, arrived in San Francisco in August of 1956. Like a trout swimming instinctively upstream to spawn, Brautigan immediately wound up in San Francisco’s North Beach, home to City Lights Books and the then-bourgeoning San Francisco Renaissance, which had officially been ushered into existence less than a year before at the famous reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on October 7th, 1955, at the Six Gallery. Brautigan soon met and befriended many of the key players in the San Francisco literary scene, including Michael McClure, Ron Loewinsohn, Robert and Bobbie Louise Creeley, Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and many others. Within a year of his arrival in San Francisco, Brautigan had integrated himself into the North Beach community, married his first wife, Ginny Alder, seen his poetry published increasingly, and been frequently invited to give public readings of his work. Despite being mostly unemployed and relying on selling his blood to cover his expenses, things were looking good for the new kid in town.

After the appearance of his first two poetry collections, The Galilee Hitchhiker (1958) and Lay the Marble Tea (1959), Brautigan became increasingly interested in writing prose and began making his first attempts in that direction, working on the fragments that would eventually become his first novel, Trout Fishing in America. Jack Spicer served as an important and attentive mentor to Brautigan, and typical for Spicer, his advice to Brautigan was somewhat oblique. As Hjortsberg recounts:

“Throw away the good lines,” Spicer said. “Keep the bad lines.” He wanted Richard to come up with something new. Ginny remembered the long silent hours of work. “He didn’t talk much about it. He and Spicer talked. We talked about it together. He’d say, ‘I’ve got a short story.’
“We’d say, ‘No you don’t. You’ve got a poem.’”

On March 25th, 1960, Ginny gave birth to their daughter, Ianthe. Gradually Brautigan’s drinking and mental instability increased and the relationship ended abruptly after Ginny let it be known that she was having an affair. After completing Trout Fishing, Brautigan immediately began A Confederate General from Big Sur, the main character of which was based on a new friend, Price Dunn, an eccentric individualist who worked as a caretaker in Big Sur, providing much of the same kind of inspiration for Brautigan that Neal Cassady gave Jack Kerouac, whose highly acclaimed novel, On the Road, had appeared in 1957. Like Trout FishingA Confederate General was a synthesis of real-life experience, various readings and studies, and Brautigan’s own fertile imagination. In fairly rapid succession there followed In Watermelon SugarThe Abortion, as well as the stories and poems which would make up the collections Revenge of the Lawn and The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. The first half of the ’60s had been very prodigious. It looked like Brautigan was on a roll.

Although technically Brautigan’s second novel, A Confederate General was published first by Grove Press in 1965, but due to poor sales they held back on the publishing of Trout Fishingand rejected his two remaining contracted novels, In Watermelon Sugar and The Abortion. At first exceedingly difficult to place with a publisher despite garnering much praise from all who read the manuscript (it was eventually published in 1967 by Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation, and again in 1969 by Delacorte Press), Trout Fishing went on to sell four million copies, securing Brautigan’s international fame and reputation as a unique American writer, as well as bringing in large sums of cash.

Hjortsberg’s depiction of the ’60s is more than just the usual scan, and he goes into great detail to portray the liveliness of the times as well as the intensely political background, an aspect frequently overlooked when trying to sum up the decade. Although the hippies stole most of the limelight with their colorful and bemusing antics, it was the actually the Diggers who were behind much of the more political and practical logistics of the free concerts, free distribution of food and clothes, and the free press, an aspect in which Brautigan was seriously interested—to the point that he briefly joined ranks with the Diggers and distributed some of his own poetry by way of their guerilla samizdat tactics. Hjortsberg’s in-depth writing on these various factions and their feuds and rivalries is one of the most interesting parts of the book, reminding us that there was much more to the ’60s than just Flower Power and the Summer of Love.

In the early ’70s, when wealth and fame had finally caught up with him, Brautigan bought a ranch in Pine Creek, Montana. Brautigan’s introduction and invitation to Montana first came by way of Thomas McGuane, who had written a favorable review of Trout Fishing for the New York Times Book Review, and who had moved to Montana after selling the screen rights to his first novel, The Sporting Club. The “scene” in Montana, better known as “The Montana Gang,” who often collected in the big kitchen of McGuane’s (“Captain Berserko”) ranch, included other cutting-edge writers, actors, musicians, and artists (e.g. Jim Harrison, Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Jimmy Buffett, Russell Chatham, and Hjortsberg himself), and Brautigan fell in with this hard-partying group, partially attracted by their ability to turn their art into money as well as the lure of Hollywood and the possibility of turning his own work into even more lucrative screenplays.

When Hjortsberg’s own character is introduced into the narrative, he maintains his third-person point of view, thus maintaining his critical objectiveness, and cleverly meeting the challenge of having to write about himself as a character in his own book. There are occasional anecdotes and asides—sometimes they exist as chapters unto themselves—in which Hjortsberg speaks in the first person, but these are so deftly edited into the larger narrative that they in no way detract or interrupt the flow in general. And although Jubilee Hitchhiker is Hjortsberg’s first foray into the field of non-fiction, he comes to this genre with all the skills of a seasoned writer and gifted storyteller, whose screenplay experience obviously enhances the dramatic structure and telling of this biographical epic.

During Brautigan’s first visit to Montana in 1972 he wrote The Hawkline Monster, his first novel since completing The Abortion in 1965. The Hawkline Monster was published in 1974, followed by Willard and His Bowling Trophies (1975), and Sombrero Fallout (1976), as well as the poetry collection, Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork (1976). None of this new work received the same sort of critical reception as his work from the ’60s, and as the ’70s wore on, Brautigan’s success and fame quickly began to fade. For Brautigan the ’60s were both a blessing and a curse, providing the fertile ground and artistic camaraderie in which his writing was able to flourish, only to be so closely associated with that period that for many he was the baby thrown out with the bathwater. For the most part, the novels of the ’70s were received as little more than experiments in genre-bending, and were unable to replicate the quirky genius of his first three novels. Plagued by alcoholism, insomnia, paranoia, and increasing megalomania, Brautigan was clearly in trouble.

In 1976 Brautigan made the first of many visits to Japan, where he was still able to cash in on his lingering fame. During this first trip Brautigan met Akiko Yoshimura and they were married the following year. These trips to Japan also provided the material that would be reworked into the poetry collection June 30th, June 30th (1978), as well as the collection of short stories, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980).

By the time the 1980s rolled around Brautigan was no longer the darling of the critics and all but forgotten, divorced from his second wife, drinking heavily, frequently traveling and living in various hotels, and at home nowhere. His attempt to reconcile his desire to be a pop star with that of being a serious literary writer had failed, leading him into troubled waters which he was no longer able to navigate. So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away, his ninth novel and the last one to appear in his lifetime, appeared in 1982, ignored or dismissed by the critics. An Unfortunate Woman, Brautigan’s last novel, did not see print until 1994, ten years after his death.

After reading at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam in 1983, there followed more travels in Europe, a last trip to Japan, and his final return to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1984. A last day in North Beach, vividly recreated by Hjortsberg, in which Brautigan visited many of his old haunts such as Enrico’s and Gino & Carlo’s, with chance encounters in the street with both his ex-wife Akiko and a former girlfriend, were just a few of the last dramatic occurrences that pushed Brautigan over the edge. The next day, on Sunday, September 16th, Brautigan picked up the Smith & Wesson .44 magnum and blew out his brains. In a grim twist of synchronicity (or perhaps not), on that same date in 1960, twenty-four years earlier, Brautigan made a note to himself about the significance of September 16th, it being Mexican Independence Day, and chose that date as the beginning of his work on Trout Fishing in America, jotting down the date on a piece of paper and tacking it on the wall above his typewriter. “I figured September 16 would mean something other than the date of Mexico’s independence. Perhaps some kind of independence for things inside myself.”

Hjortsberg has written a compelling narrative about his friend and former neighbor, solidly written, thoroughly researched, and ample enough to present a detailed portrait of both the writer and his times. And yet—although it seems like a moot point to address the issue of omissions in a work of this size—there is a lingering sense of incompleteness about Jubilee Hitchhiker. Obviously, judging by the scope of Hjortsberg’s project, one of the purposes of the book is to restore Brautigan’s credibility as a writer and debunk the myth of his alleged irrelevance; for too long, Brautigan has been regarded as merely a minor-league appendage to the Beats or a cultural mascot to the hippies. The problem that arises in Hjortsberg’s narrative is a proportional one.

Brautigan’s fame peaked at the beginning of the ’70s and then rapidly began to fade, his bright star becoming a burning fuselage locked into a tailspin from which there was no return. For this period of Brautigan’s life—1970 to his death in 1984—Hjortsberg has dedicated over 400 pages, more than half of the book, detailing in blow-by-blow accounts Brautigan’s slow but steady self-destruction. On the other hand, the critical window in which Brautigan was at the peak of his creative powers, from 1960 to 1965, in which he wrote his first four novels and many of his best poems and stories, is dealt with in a mere eighty-five pages. And although Hjortsberg supplies the readers with some of the many and varied sources of Brautigan’s influences (Sappho, Basho, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Kenneth Patchen, etc.), as well the names of his peers and mentors in San Francisco, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to how a kid from a rural, impoverished, dysfunctional family, with nothing more than a few high school creative writing classes under his belt, could suddenly break away and within a matter of years create works of such idiosyncratic genius and distinctive originality, which were to challenge and redefine the concepts of both prose poetry and modern fiction. Certainly there could have been more insights into Brautigan’s peculiar literary alchemy, a look behind the scenes of the process and procedure involved in the writing of that first wave of the author’s artistic output.

For example, after Spicer’s intense editorial involvement with Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan hoped to benefit again from Spicer’s editorial savvy for a new novel. But Spicer flatly refused, telling Brautigan that he was on his own now. Brautigan then went on to write In Watermelon Sugar, one of his most accomplished, imaginative and poetic works. Was Spicer’s refusal of editorial assistance a key factor in this sudden metamorphosis? Was it being forced to proceed alone, without a safety net, which forced Brautigan into new creative territory and allowed him to achieve full artistic independence? Or did he simply sign a pact with the Devil in the back room of Gino & Carlo’s? Allegedly the original manuscript of Jubilee Hitchhiker was around 2,000 pages, making one wonder what got left on the cutting room floor, and what the criteria were for those edits. A bit of condensing here, a bit of expansion there, might have created a more balanced picture of this very imbalanced writer.

As such, the exegesis of Brautigan’s Faustian transformation from country bumpkin to internationally acclaimed writer remains partly untold, and it’s easy for the reader to come away from Jubilee Hitchhiker with the impression of a deeply troubled writer who devoted more time and energy to destroying himself than to creating his art or cultivating his genius. As the Serbian proverb says, “The good reputation goes far, but the bad goes even much farther.” But as the subtitle of Jubilee Hitchhiker says, this is a “life and times,” and not necessarily a critical analysis of Brautigan’s oeuvre, which might have burst the confines of this already massive and detailed work.

Nonetheless, we can be entirely grateful for the long awaited appearance of this warts-and-all portrait of one of America’s most unique writers, whose legacy is easily on the same footing with all those other great West Coast writers and poets, including Ken Kesey, Charles Bukowski, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, John Fante, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Robinson Jeffers, to mention just a few. As Kesey himself said, “Five hundred years from now, when the rest of us are forgotten, they’ll still be reading Brautigan.” Thanks to Hjortsberg, Brautigan’s place in that literary pantheon is relatively secure. What’s needed now to cement that reputation into place and finalize Brautigan’s rehabilitation is a definitive edition of his collected poems. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another twenty years.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012