This biography of a once-great writer achieves greatness itself

William Hjortsberg’s Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life And Times of Richard Brautigan is a staggering achievement, a truly wonderful and thoughtful biography. But it’s very difficult to fully appreciate just how good it is unless you’re already familiar with the book’s subject.

If you’re under 30, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Richard Brautigan, never encountered his whimsical poetry, never read his darkly comic prose. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Brautigan was widely read and immensely successful. His breakthrough novel, Trout Fishing in America (1967), sold millions of copies. Although Brautigan never self-identified as a “hippie,” his work was embraced by the counterculture, and he quickly became rich and famous. In 1972, a critical study of Brautigan’s work (from a paperback series entitled “Writers for the ’70s”) placed Brautigan on a par with no less than Kurt Vonnegut, Hermann Hesse and J. R. R. Tolkien. Brautigan continued writing and publishing into the ’80s, but his popularity quickly waned and he felt “written off.” In 1984, Brautigan committed suicide. He was 49 years old, and his body was not discovered for a month. Jubilee Hitchhiker (Counterpoint, $42.50) does not skimp on details, however gruesome.

Hjortsberg was friends with Brautigan and a neighbor during his years in Montana. As a firsthand witness to Brautigan’s mercurial personality, he has unique insight into Brautigan’s best qualities (his creativity, his generosity) along with his worst: the alcohol abuse, the womanizing, the bouts of depression and Brautigan’s fondness for guns. Hjortsberg conducted extensive interviews and has stitched together hundreds of memories and colorful Brautigan-related anecdotes for Jubilee Hitchhiker. The result is nearly 900 pages of awfully small type, testimony to two decades of research.

I know most of Brautigan’s published work, but I learned a great deal about Brautigan’s early life: his broken home (Brautigan never knew his father), his complicated relationship with his mother and sister, the heartbreak of an early unrequited love, and a two-month stay at an Oregon mental hospital that included shock treatments. Hjortsberg presents the facts without making any psychological assumptions; this is fine, unbiased reporting.

In 1956, Brautigan hitchhiked to San Francisco and Hjortsberg paints a vivid picture of the city as its literary scene exploded. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti all figure prominently here. Brautigan’s first published novel, A Confederate General From Big Sur, arrived in 1964; his breakthrough novel, Trout Fishing in America, arrived three years later, forever changing Brautigan’s life. In all, Brautigan published 10 collections of poetry, 11 novels (one posthumously) and a collection of short stories (Revenge of the Lawn, 1971). Like Vonnegut, his prose was humorous and deceptively simple.

Jubilee Hitchhiker is an exhaustive look at Brautigan. It’s absorbing and affecting, and a cautionary tale about the traps of fame. Hjortsberg has done his old friend a real service. Normally, enthusiasm for an author’s published work prompts interest in the author’s biography; in the case of Jubilee Hitchhiker, fans of Hjortsberg’s book will surely be inspired to seek out Brautigan’s writing. ★★★★☆