Richard Brautigan once observed that “It’s really something to have fame put its feathery crowbar under your rock and then upward to the light to release you, along with seven grubs and a sow bug.”
And he would know — Brautigan went from shy, impoverished, unknown struggling writer to world-renowned wealthy counter-cultural icon and back in little more than a decade, and the “grubs and bugs” that came along with fame and fortune were his downfall. But for a time he was the most widely-read and beloved San Francisco author, a veritable literary rock star.
Many Brautigan readers have been waiting a long time for this biography — it’s been 28 years since his suicide in West Marin, and the book has been almost as long in the making. Brautigan fans should not be disappointed, as this is and will remain the definitive retelling of a writer whose storied and troubled life partly defined an era, for better and worse. With caveats, this book was still worth the wait.
“Jubilee Hitchhiker” is a massive work — over 800 pages of small print. Therein lies both the tome’s strengths and weaknesses. To get the latter out of the way first: Does Brautigan’s life warrant a biography longer than that of, say, his literary hero Ernest Hemingway? For some diehard Brautigan fans, yes. But Brautigan’s own books were brief, and his life was shorter and far less adventuresome and eventful than Hemingway’s. This means the attention to detail here must be extreme, and so it is. Hjortsberg, a writer who knew Brautigan and refers to himself in the third person here, interviewed over 150 people, read seemingly everything ever written about and by Brautigan, including much unpublished work and voluminous letters. He apparently found almost anybody who ever encountered Brautigan, and included most everything they told them in his manuscript — which he has said was twice as long as this hefty published volume. It’s hard to imagine what was omitted.
Putting everybody’s memories into a mostly chronological life story is a huge and worthy reconstructive effort, but could have benefitted from yet more attention and editing. Endless street addresses, flight numbers, dollar amounts, and retellings of extraneous events and details could well have been omitted. For example, recounting in detail the legendary Six Gallery poetry reading where Allen Ginsberg debuted Howl seems superfluous when that has been done so many times — especially as Brautigan had not even arrived in San Francisco yet. And so on.
Of course, as Hjortsberg admits, sometimes “the mists of time draw a confused curtain across the memories” of people who knew Brautigan — perhaps doubly so in the era and cohort this book chronicles. Minor errors like repeatedly referring to Ken Kesey as “Captain Trips” — that was Jerry Garcia, and the Dead’s famed communal Haight house was not at 810 Ashbury, either — or spelling Big Sur’s storied hangout Nepenthe “Nepenthy” or making simple geographical and spelling errors can be excused — but might throw question the accuracy of other elements herein. A more serious problem is that Hjortsberg was infected with the modern tendency for authors to project themselves into their subject’s minds, recreating thoughts and actions nobody else actually witnessed. Finally, there is also some cringingly dramatic writing; hoping to re-contact Brautigan’s biological father, he writes “I might as well have been a paving contractor on the highway to hell.”
But enough nitpicking, as Hjorstberg did find and interview that father, something nobody had ever done — Brautigan himself never knew him. Likewise for many others from Brautigan’s life. So once one gets past the needlessly lurid opening reconstruction of Brautigan’s body decaying for weeks, maggots, flies and all, his life story unfolds as a tragicomedy, and the book vividly evokes the heady 1960s and 1970s, especially in the Bay Area, as lived by a “deeply strange” literary icon.
Born in 1935, Brautigan endured a transient, lonely, impoverished Washington state childhood in a “uniquely unsentimental” family, producing an “extremely troubled young man” and culminating in a bout of primitive electroshock therapy. In 1956 he “completely turned his back on his own past” and escaped to San Francisco in time to catch both the fabled Beat and Hippie eras. He was not truly part of either, although he did run with the fabled Diggers in the Haight. For years, he’d already worked hard at writing with little success at publishing, other than poems in literary journals. But in San Francisco he continued working on his novels. With the completion of his fourth, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, he’d “capped one of the most remarkable creative streaks in American literature. Four utterly unique books (previous titles were A Confederate General from Big Sur, Trout Fishing in America, and In Watermelon Sugar—the latter glaringly missing from otherwise extensive bibliography) together with innumerable poems and a distinguished group of short stories.”
Then, he “did not write another novel for eight years.” But during those years, while he sold his blood to eat, his books found publishers, became best-sellers, and brought him fame and fortune. John Lennon was a big fan; Jack Nicholson wanted to make a film from his writing. Astronauts named a moon crater after a Brautigan character. Kurt Vonnegut called him a “hippie writer” who was “creating a cult of his own” and he drew large crowds to readings as his readership and income exploded. His books were both taught and banned in schools. He wrote more books in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but his work, which had always received widely divided opinions, increasingly fell from grace with both critics and readers. From this retelling, the money, groupies, failed obsessive relationships, and renown — he was featured in LIFE and People magazines, and hung out with film and literary stars — coupled with his alcoholism, derailed his fragile and insecure psyche and left him isolated and suicidal. It’s not a pretty story, especially once he moves to Montana and the drinking truly amplifies his insecurities, sexism, and even violent tendencies. It was very sad on many levels, as the last book he published in his lifetime, So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, showed he still had his singular skills. But then he couldn't even find a publisher for his next one. He was lost again, as in his childhood; “My life would be easier if I knew where I really lived,” he lamented late in his life. “Without knowing it, Brautigan had begun a long spiral into the vortex of oblivion,” Hjortsberg writes. His tragic end as told here appears almost preordained.
But fortunately, and most important, Brautigan left behind his unique body of whimsically humorous but often ominous writing, deceptively simple, infused by singular genius, lasting in allure for those who loved his work then or discover it now. So here, grubs, sow bugs, and all, is his story.
Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan, by William Hjortsberg. Counterpoint; 852 pages; $42.50.