For a committed sensualist and prototypical hippie, a man who wore floppy hats, granny glasses, love beads and a droopy mustache, Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) had a potent work ethic.
He wrote nearly every morning, regardless of keening hangovers, William Hjortsberg notes in “Jubilee Hitchhiker,” his sprawling and definitive new biography of this most offbeat of American writers. Brautigan spent the rest of the day “in pursuit of happiness.”
Happiness for Brautigan usually meant, to borrow the title of a W. M. Spackman novel, an armful of warm girl.
Happiness also meant seeing plenty of movies. And once he began making money, in the early 1970s, it also meant good food.
Brautigan’s signal pleasure, though, from the time he was a young boy, growing up poor in a broken family in Tacoma, until the end of his life, was trout fishing. It was an obsession that fed his first and probably best novel, “Trout Fishing in America,” written in 1961 but not issued by a major publishing house until 1969.
Generations of anglers have picked up “Trout Fishing in America” based on its title alone, expecting a how-to volume. What they get instead is akin to a gentle tab of LSD: an eccentric and slyly profound novel, seemingly narrated by the ghost of trout fishing past.
Brautigan wrote his best novels – “Trout Fishing in America,” “A Confederate General From Big Sur” (1964), “In Watermelon Sugar” (1968) and “The Abortion” (1971) – and books of poetry before fame swamped him in the early ’70s.
He got rich suddenly and enjoyed himself vastly. His writing got woolier, and the critics turned on him.
Critics have clashed over the merits of even his best stuff, many agreeing with Jonathan Yardley, who said that Brautigan was “the Love Generation’s answer to Charlie Schultz. Happiness is a warm hippie.”
In this overly long but involving new biography, Hjortsberg, a novelist who was a friend and neighbor of Brautigan’s during his Montana years, nails the qualities that I’ve admired about Brautigan’s work.
One of the merits of “Jubilee Hitchhiker” is that it not only tracks Brautigan’s life but also deftly flips open any number of worlds, from the Beat and counterculture scenes in San Francisco to gonzo times in Montana.
Brautigan was essentially a loner, but he seemed to know everyone and go everywhere. He drank heavily in with the young Jimmy Buffett. He shot basketball and tore up money (a long story) with Jack Nicholson. He had an impromptu pasta sauce cook-off with Francis Ford Coppola.
Brautigan and his three siblings grew up in and around Tacoma (and later, Eugene, Ore.); his mother worked as a cashier, among other jobs. He never knew his father.
In 1956, Brautigan made his way to San Francisco, falling in with a scene that included the poets Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder. Brautigan was livid when the publicity material for his novel “A Confederate General From Big Sur” linked him with the Beats.
But by the mid-’60s he was a San Francisco celebrity. He printed poems on seed packets and gave them away in a collection titled “Please Plant This Book.” In the late 1960s he published some two dozen short stories in his friend Jann Wenner’s new magazine, Rolling Stone.
Brautigan went national in 1969, when Delacorte Press published “Trout Fishing in America,” “The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster” and “In Watermelon Sugar” in one volume. Before long, he dearly wished to shed his whimsical image.
He never could.
This biography is perhaps an odd tribute to a writer whose books were tiny. It’s total overkill. But it’s an enjoyable soak in American literary bohemia, and a clear-eyed portrait of a man whom Hjortsberg aptly calls “a connoisseur of the perfect moment.” His book is full of them.