by Hugh Gilmore
What an ordeal! I just finished a very long, tedious, but quite fascinating book whose final paragraphs made me sad. Once I committed to writing about it, I felt like saying, “I am Lazarus, come from the dead/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all…” (after T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”). Though I’m not sure that I can.
The book is William Hjorstberg’s 880-page biography-down-to-the-last-scrap-of-paper, “Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan.” It was originally published around this time last year. It took me three weeks of daily reading to finish this book. And I never particularly cared for, nor was interested in Richard Brautigan, as poet, novelist, icon or man. And to make matters harder, I read the book on my Kindle.
Do you know what it is like to read an 880-page book on a Kindle? For one thing, the “page” is too small and confining. More importantly, without the benefit of turning a page and seeing a higher page number that helps you mark your progress, the process seems endless.
A Kindle indicates the percentage of the total you’ve read so far. To move 10 percent you must page-click the word equivalent of 88 book pages. At the font size I used, it took about 10 clicks to move 1 percent and close to 900 clicks to move through 10 percent of the book. Two weeks into the book, though I was enjoying it immensely, I wished I were done. I was at 40 percent. I started pushing. I read at all hours of the day. Last Saturday night I finished. And I was quite sad about how it ended.
And as I said, I don’t even like Brautigan, and I certainly liked him less after knowing so much more about him. I read somewhere once that if you watch a housefly on your windowsill for five minutes you’ll lose all urge to swat it and start looking for a way to let it out. Meaning, you’ll sense the life you share in common with it and sense life’s preciousness and feel compassion for your fellow creature. Life animates each of us for only a brief while.
I never had an urge to swat Richard Brautigan. Indeed, I never felt anything about him, except the sense that I thought I knew what he had to say and I wasn’t interested. I’d tried a few of his books and thought him too lightweight – even silly – and found his poems to be nearly all meringue. A passing phase of American cultural history: the beats and hippies.
Why read the bio then? Well, I like long biographies. If I’m willing to make the effort, I’d like to learn about this person in depth. In this way, reading a biography is like reading a long, complex novel.
I also am fascinated by discovering the career arcs of people who became famous in their chosen business. In the writing arts, in the 1950s and 1960s, there were only two places to be: San Francisco and New York. You could not type away in Philadelphia, or Tampa, or Toledo and mail it in. Brautigan moved from Washington/Oregon to San Francisco. Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg bestrode both coasts.
This “Jubilee Hitchhiker” book provides a very well-described history of how the bohemians gave root to the beats, from whom the hippies split off. Brautigan was there from the beginning, pushing, reading, postering, hanging out here, there, and everywhere, all day, every day. Every night. After almost 20 years of endeavor, he achieved “overnight” international success, as the old story goes.
So, I was very much drawn into this saga of American literary history, since much of it has taken place during my own life span.
Another aspect of biographies that motivates me is the desire to know what someone was like as a person. Was Brautigan as frothy in real life as his writings would make him seem to be? Not at all. He could play the hippy-dippy at will, but in his personal life he was both fascinating and repulsive in the way he treated people.
He was 6-feet, 4-inches tall and thin. He moved without grace. He dressed to cultivate the eccentric “Frisco” look. He hardly partook of the drug scene, but he did become a raging (literally) alcoholic. He had an enormous tolerance for hard liquor, but his penchant was for drinking till he more or less passed out.
Meantime, he threw or attended lots of parties. Somewhere between the start of an evening and reaching oblivion, he caused, and collected, serious grudges. In his case, an imagined insult often led to his refusing ever to see a longtime friend again. To party with him was to take the chance he’d never want to see you again. Yet, even today, those who loved him, even begrudgingly, still do.
Brautigan left several long trails of tears behind him, not the smallest quantity of which were his own. Through it all, he tried to write every day. And through it all, he never gave up on pushing his career. Until he shot himself in the head. The book opens with 50 pages of description of that crime scene and an attempt to explain why he died alone and why his body was not discovered until weeks afterward.
Kudos to the author, William Hjorstberg, a former friend, a writer himself, who seems not to have left out a single one of the hundreds of thousands of details he accumulated about Brautigan’s life. He even manages to impose some order and sense upon the material.
I don’t think I’d have enjoyed knowing Brautigan. One small post-mortem detail, however, captivated me and has made me now a lifelong admirer of his sympathy for underdogs. In his novel, “The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966,” (1971, actually), Brautigan suggested that there should be built a library of works by unpublished authors who always wanted to see their work in a library.
In 1990, after Brautigan died, a man named Todd Lockwood established the Brautigan Library in Burlington, Vt. It has since moved to San Francisco. It is most peculiar, but a living memorial to those who write and dream and awaken to find rejection slips every day when the mail arrives. You can find it on Google quite easily.
In summing up my reaction to the book: As with the fly, I felt deep sympathy and admiration for Brautigan’s long, arduous struggle to stay alive and pursue his dreams.