Richard Brautigan was a literary phenomenon. He burst on the scene with the force of a nuclear explosion at the end of the Flower Power decade of the 1960‘s. His original style and the gentle, whimsical nature of his prose and poetry caught the imagination of a generation and literally changed the definition of literary success.
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With titles such as “Trout Fishing in America,” “In Watermelon Sugar,” and “A Confederate General from Big Sur,” Brautigan’s work went through printing after printing, selling tens of thousands of copies not only in the United States but in countries all over the world. He became rich and rock-star famous. Even the Beatles were influenced by Brautigan.
And then - almost as soon as it began - the supernova that was Richard Brautigan rapidly started to fade. It wasn’t long before this strange and most unlikely literary hero was abandoned by his public and virtually forgotten. The final chapter concluded in 1984 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Richard Brautigan was 49.
Part of Brautigan’s mystic was the fact that almost nothing was really known about the author’s background. Except for a handful of memoirs (including his daughter’s touching and harrowing book, “You Can’t Catch Death”), Brautigan’s life remained a mystery waiting to be solved.
William Hjortsberg’s pricey ($42.50) new 862 page biography, “Jubilee Hitchhiker: the life and times of Richard Brautigan,” is a singular achievement and is absolutely the definitive book on Richard Brautigan. It clearly and comprehensively unravels many of the enigmas shrouding the life of this most secretive and complicated man.
Mr. Hjortsberg is a novelist (“Alp,” “Gray Matters,” “Falling Angel”) and was a friend of Richard Brautigan. He began the project in 1991. His meticulous research and easygoing style combine to place Brautigan’s life in the context of his time: a little too young for the beat generation; a little too old for the love generation.
Born in Tacoma, Washington, on January 30, 1935, Brautigan spent the majority of his childhood in Eugene, Oregon. The oldest for four siblings by four different fathers, Brautigan left home for San Francisco in the summer of 1956 after a brief stent in a state mental institution.
Far from being an overnight sensation, Mr. Hjortsberg scrupulously details Brautigan’s single mined attempts to have his poetry published in the little literary magazines and newspapers prevalent at the time. He also delves in to the effort behind Brautigan’s successful ventures at self-publishing.
1969 was the watershed year. When the dam finally broke, it was a deluge. Perhaps the most fascinating chapters of “Jubilee Hitchhiker” are the descriptions of Brautigan’s fantastic success and how this basically shy and socially inept human being struggled to adapt to “fames feathery crowbar.” He suddenly found himself surrounded by a bunch of cool new “friends” like Jimmy Buffet, Peter Fonda, and Jeff Bridges (and more 18 year old girls than he knew what to do with).
But the fame didn’t last for long. And when it was all over, it was a fate worse than death.
To digress for just a moment, the book is riddled with typographical errors - the most blatant being a misquote of Allen Ginsberg’s famous opening lines from his immortal poem “Howl.” It would also have been nice to have more pictures included in the book. But I’m nitpicking.
Even if you’ve never heard of Richard Brautigan, “Jubilee Hitchhiker” is fascinating reading. I suggest you try it. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10.5.