By Ray Schultz
Richard Brautigan’s life is just as hard to fathom as some of his more obscure writing. But Williams Hjortsberg takes a stab at it in his excellent literary biography: Jubilee Hitchhiker, the life and times of Richard Brautigan.
Brautigan, for those who don’t know, was an American author with a huge following and a style that nobody could imitate. He was an iconic figure—tall, blond, with a walrus mustache and granny glasses, and he always had on a western hat.
His first novel, Trout Fishing in America, consisted of a series of seemingly disjointed chapters linked by the narrative voice, and by the fact that Trout Fishing in America is a phenomenon with a thought process of its own. Here’s a sample:
As a child when did I first hear about trout fishing in America? From whom? I guess it was a stepfather of mine.
Summer of 1942.
The old drunk told me about trout fishing. When he could talk, he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious and intelligent metal.
Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when he told me about trout fishing.
I’d like to get it right.
Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat.
A steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings, trains and tunnels.
The Andrew Carnegie of Trout!
The Reply of Trout Fishing in America:
I remember with particular amusement people with three-cornered hats fishing in the dawn.
Did I say sample? That was the entire chapter.
For all its whimsy and humor, the book also had a tinge of melancholy. Some critics thought it was too cute by half. But it took off, selling 2 million copies. Everybody read it, just as many later read Brautigan’s other novels: A Confederate General from Big Sur, In Watermelon Sugar, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 and several poetry books.
“Just as the shining promise of the sixties gave way to the Nixon years, Richard Brautigan’s own star ascended,” Hjortsberg writes. “Work done in obscure poverty during the hippie decade now cast its golden light upon him. Money, previously in short supply, came in abundance.”
Yes, and he was as much of a celebrity in San Francisco as R. Crumb, the Grateful Dead or any of the Beats.
The time was November 1973. A woman I knew invited Brautigan and a few other people to a five-flight Greenwich Village walkup for a nightcap. Along with Brautigan came Charles Gaines, author of several books about bodybuilding, and a literary agent whose name I don’t remember. What was I doing there? I bought the wine while they were on their way—cheap red wine with twist-off caps instead of corks.
Brautigan had just finished a novel, which he didn’t tell us anything about. But he admitted: “When I finish a book, I like to go out to lunch for a month.”
The big shots sat on the bed, a mattress on the floor, while the rest of us gathered around the mattress. Brautigan asked Gaines about the bodybuilding craze.
‘I have one question, Charles: Why?”
Then Brautigan sounded off on Leonard Gardner, the author of Fat City: “How can he call himself a writer when he’s only written one book?”
Emboldened by wine, I asked Brautigan what he thought of Nelson Algren. I felt he had been disrespectful to Algren in Trout Fishing in America, in a chapter titled, “The Shipping of Trout Fishing in America Shorty to Nelson Algren.”
He looked surprised, and repeated the question as a declarative statement: “What do I think of Nelson Algren.”
I never got an answer, but the subject came up of what I did. I told them I was a reporter and had spent several months doing research on Hasidic Jews. This was a few weeks after the Yom Kippur war. Brautigan raised an eyebrow.
“What do you think they should do with the occupied territories?” he asked me.
This felt like a trap. I was a Zionist in my heart, but wary about being outwitted by a famous author. The wine failed me, and I fudged my answer.
“I think they should give them back.”
“With proper security guarantees.”
Now I’m deeply ashamed of my response. I don’t know what Brautigan thought privately, but his work seemed apolitical, and he never showed any animosity toward any group of people. I should have just unloaded with the anxiety many of us felt at that time.
The conversation lightened up, and Brautigan showed the wry laid-back charm that endeared him to people. By the time the party ended, I liked him a great deal and decided I would make it my business to read his new novel when it came out.
Nine months went by, and the book appeared: The Hawkline Monster, A Gothic Western. I bought it on day one and started reading it:
They crouched with their rifles in the pineapple field, watching a man teach his son how to ride a horse. It was the summer of 1902 in Hawaii.
They hadn’t said anything for a long time. They just crouched there watching the man and the boy and the horse. What they saw did not make them happy.
“I can’t do it,” Greer said.
“It’s a bastard all right,” Cameron said.
“I can’t shoot a man when he’s teaching his kid how to ride a horse.” Greer said. “I’m not made that way.’
Thus began the story of a pair of professional killers who are hired to kill a monster in the Hawkline mansion in Eastern Oregon. They travel there with the woman who hired them, an apparent Native American named Magic Child.
They reach a town called Billy, and meet the town marshal, a no-nonsense lawman named Jack Williams who seems to know Magic Child and has “a tremendous respect for her quick lean body.”
“These are my friends,’ she said, making the introductions. “I want you to meet them. This is Greer and this is Cameron. I want you to meet Jack Williams. He’s the town marshal.
Greer and Cameron were smiling softly at the intensity of Magic Child’s and Jack Williams’ greeting.
“Howdy,” Jack Williams said, shaking their hands.”What are you boys up to?”
“Come on now,” Magic Child said. “these are my friends.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack Williams said, laughing. “I’m sorry, boys. I own a saloon here. Any time you want there’s a drink waiting over there for you and it’s on me.”
He was a fair man and people respected him for it.
A couple of chapters later, the trio is riding through the Dead Hills, giving rise to this line:
Finally they came across something human. It was a grave.
In 1974, I found the book infuriatingly slight. But it was also very funny, and when I read it again recently, it didn’t seem slight at all: It’s just a splendid piece of entertainment. And it was a commercial success.
“By November 1976, Hawkline had sold 49,211 hardbound copies in America and an additional 73,750 in quality paperback,” Hjortsberg writes. (I like biographers who address the business side of things). “The mass-market paperback, released in September, had already reached 160,085 copies in sales. These figures were not lost on Hal Ashby, who planned to move ahead (with a movie) with Jack Nicholson.”
The movie was never made, but Brautigan was hot—again. Starting with the Hawkline Monster, he came out with a “genre” novel every fall for four years, the others being Willard and his Bowling Trophies, Sombrero Fallout and Dreaming of Babylon. I enjoyed them all, although none more than The Hawkline Monster.
Brautigan had one more commercial success, The Tokyo-Montana Express, in 1980. But he was sliding out of fashion. His sales nadir was the 1982 novel So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away. In 1984, at age 49, he blew his brains out in Bolinas, California.
Like many fans, I asked the same one-word question Brautigan had asked Charles Gaines: Why? Was it depression over his declining fortunes? Other writers have experienced all that, and managed to come back—look at Edward Albee. But here’s one clue: As Hjortsberg vividly portrays, Brautigan was an alcoholic, a falling-down drunk. He could be terribly cruel when ossified. And he enjoyed shooting up his kitchen with a gun.
But he continued writing. A new novel appeared years after his death: An Unfortunate Woman, about a dead woman whom we never meet and is never seen. It definitely has Brautigan’s tone—a subdued version of it. It’s one of the saddest books I’ve read. If there’s anything sadder, it’s You Can’t Catch Death, a memoir written by Brautigan’s daughter Ianthe. She loved him fiercely, although he wasn’t much of a father.
It’s too bad about his drinking. There was help available, and it might have saved Brautigan, but that’s easy to say from the outside. Artists are entitled to be complex. And as I enjoy these novels once more, I am reminded of just what an artist Richard Brautigan was.