Richard Brautigan grew up in Oregon, convinced he’d be an influential writer. He rose to fame in San Francisco and later split his time between Bolinas, Calif.; Livingston, Mont.; and Japan. He published 10 poetry books and a dozen novels, including the once-banned 1967 classic Trout Fishing in America.
As his work’s popularity declined, his alcohol use escalated, and in 1984, at the age of 49, he committed suicide.
While his distinctive, irreverent and illuminating work may have had its greatest impact on post-modern culture when first released, Trout Fishing in America became the moniker of an experimental school in Boston, a crater on the moon, a Grammy-nominated band and at least one baby. Brautigan continues to inspire scholarly dissertations, plays, songs, art, films, blogs and fansites today.
Even if you’re not a Brautigan fan, it’s worth picking up novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg’s definitive new biography, Jubilee Hitchhiker, for intimate histories of 1960s counterculture in the San Francisco Bay Area (although Brautigan loathed being classified as one of the “Beat” generation) and of the 1970s “Montana Gang” convergence of writers and artists, including Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Tim Cahill and Jimmy Buffett: “Up in Montana, Brautigan encountered an unexpected literary scene … a group of writers who enjoyed trout fishing, drinking whisky, and shooting guns as much as he did—writers who rejected trendy urban coteries, yet remained passionate about art and literature.”
Hjortsberg was Brautigan’s neighbor in Montana. Their properties, friends, parties, conflicts, families and writing careers overlapped for decades.
Hjortsberg began Brautigan’s biography in 1991, motivated by a contract and hefty publisher advance, and says, “If I’d known going in what it would take to get the job done, I would have quit right at the start.” He conducted 169 interviews, read all of Brautigan’s diaries, incorporated anecdotes from memoirs by friends and family members, traveled extensively, and found the father Brautigan never knew. Hjortsberg rarely inserts himself in the book, but his knowledge is intimate—as are the book’s eight pages of revealing black-and-white photographs.
The procession of details—from where the wood of Brautigan’s Bolinas house was milled, to dozens of flight and hotel room numbers—can wear a reader down. Nevertheless, Jubilee Hitchhiker is fascinating, both as a historical document and for its insight into Brautigan’s innovative work and troubled life: “Death had walked by his side since childhood, kept at bay first by ambition and later by success. These props no longer supported him.”
While no one can truly know what leads a person to suicide—especially someone like Brautigan, who left no note—this biography illuminates everything that led to his death: The sweetness, struggle, cruelty and genius are all laid bare.
This book review originally appeared in High Country News.
Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan
By William Hjortsberg
864 pages; $29.95