“Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan” chronicles the novelist’s high times and dark days.
Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan chronicles the novelist’s high times and dark days.
by David Browne
It was late one Seventies night in Pine Creek, Montana, after perhaps a bit too much to drink, when William Hjortsberg stumbled outside into the darkness with his friend Richard Brautigan. Celebrated author of the 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan was part of the Montana Gang of writers, actors, and filmmakers who’d come to the American West in search of a neo-cowboy idyll. Hjortsberg, who first met Brautigan in 1968 at a reading in the Bay Area, knew very little about his friend’s past. But standing beneath the dark sky that night, he got his first clue as to what the writer must have been like as a child. The lawn was alive with night crawlers, and Brautigan, waving a flashlight, ran maniacally around the yard pulling them from the mud — mentioning in an offhanded way that as a boy in Oregon, he’d sold worms to make money. “Richard was always reticent about his youth,” Hjortsberg says. “He never talked about it, ever. I realized then how little I knew about him.”
Inspired to learn more about Brautigan, Hjortsberg began a journey that led to his work on Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan, an 880-page brick of a biography nearly 20 years in the making. Brautigan’s genre-defying writing — a combination of rugged Americana, subtly whimsical humor, surrealism, and prescient postmodernism — placed him in the 1960s hippie avant-garde. But he was also known for the time he spent in Montana with other celebrity transplants, like Thomas McGuane, Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Jim Harrison, and Jimmy Buffett. When they weren’t trout fishing or riding horses, they were partying like Grateful Dead roadies. The book recounts Buffett dancing on the hood of a friend’s car in his golf shoes; a drug-and-booze-fueled sing-along with Warren Zevon; and epic food fights (with wives and girlfriends in their bras and panties), during which Brautigan, McGuane, and others hurled all manner of edibles at one another and trashed McGuane’s house. “We were young men on the verge of fame, and we had to blow off steam in some way,” Hjortsberg says. “It would kill me to try to party to the extent we partied back then.”
Hjortsberg knew Brautigan at his calmest (pulling trout from a cold river), his craziest (people sought sanctuary at Hjortsberg’s home when Brautigan started shooting guns in his), and his most volatile: “[There was] many an ashen-faced young thing trembling over coffee” in his kitchen after a night at Brautigan’s. He spoke with Brautigan’s absent father; reviewed the records from a mental breakdown he suffered at age 20; learned of his penchant for bondage. He even found love notes from his ex-wife to Brautigan.
In 1984, at age 49, with his career and personal life in a downward spiral, Brautigan took his own life, shooting himself in the head. His body wasn’t discovered for more than a month.
Today, more people remember Brautigan as a Sixties cultural relic than as a writer — if they remember him at all. “When I told people I was doing this book, a lot of them asked, ‘Who?’ ” Hjortsberg admits. But he knows that the two decades he devoted to his old friend have been worthwhile. “Richard captured something essential about the times in America in which he lived,” he says. “In his own quirky way, he was in the tradition of Jack London, Stephen Crane, and Hemingway. And in 49 years, you can live a lot of life.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.