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William Hjortsberg’s journey from fantasy fiction to biography...

Jubilee Hitchhiker feels like a Brautigan novel in many respects. His books were often semi-autobiographical. And like Brautigan’s books, such as The Hawkline Monster, Sombrero Fallout, and Willard and His Bowling Trophies, it’s a book you look forward to getting back to.
“I knew I couldn’t imitate his style, I have whatever my style is, but I wanted to evoke those very short pieces that Richard did,” said Mr Hjortsberg. “Those short chapters that are throughout the book are meant to be a sort of homage to Richard’s short pieces.”
Up until Jubilee Hitchhiker Mr Hjortsberg had mainly written fiction, usually fantasy, like his first published novel Alp (1968) and his most famous book Falling Angel (1978). “I got a little behind because of Richard. I always tell people Richard was a great practical joker and I can just see him in the afterlife grinning down at me saying, ‘Well, I really fucked up your fiction writing career, didn’t I.’ He’s probably getting a big kick out of it. ‘Poor old Hjortsberg. He spent all of those years chasing me down’.”
Non-fiction and research entailed some new experiences. He spent “hundreds of hours” in the basement of the University of Oregon, tracking down poems Brautigan had had published in Eugene, Oregon, newspapers. And Mr Hjortsberg attended Brautigan’s school class’s 40th reunion, collecting some good information.
Some people would not talk to Mr Hjortsberg, or would not talk about Brautigan. Poet Allen Ginsberg told Mr Hjortsberg he hadn’t known Brautigan that well. Mr Hjortsberg said he couldn’t twist people’s arms to talk. Another Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti would not talk to him at all. But then in the late 1990s a Zen Buddhist college was holding a dedication for their Allen Ginsberg Library. Mr Hjortsberg figured that the Beats were big self promoters and would all be there. So he attended. He had a press pass, and after an event held by Ferlinghetti he sat in a room with a bunch of other reporters and kept putting up his hand and asking questions about Richard Brautigan.

Like Falling Angel, the biography is partly a mystery story.
“It has a definite arc, let me put it that way. I deliberately planned the book to take on a certain form. A mystery novel, so to speak. The guy shoots himself in the first paragraph. And he was so successful; it leaves the reader with the question you know, Why did he do that? …That fact stays with the reader all the way to the end, through ups and downs whatever. There’s that undeniable fact the man ended up a suicide.”
He said the seed was sown with Brautigan’s rough childhood. “I had a semi-hard scrabble life too but it was nothing like Richard’s.”
Brautigan didn’t know who his father was, Mr Hjortsberg said. He had a different family name as a child. He had shock treatment before he was 21. He went off to San Francisco with no money, cutting ties with his family. Then he sold blood to stay alive.
“He almost never talked about his past,” said Mr Hjortsberg. “The fact he didn’t talk about it speaks volumes.”
While reading the book, I couldn’t help wondering whether anything could have made a difference and sustained Brautigan, despite his rough upbringing and his demons. He was raised Catholic but he seemed to abandon this faith. And reading about his drinking was almost sickening. You wonder how much better things could have been for him if he had stopped.

– continued next page
– copyright Simon Sandall.