As Hjortsberg guides us through his search to uncover Brautigan as a man the reader is pulled deeply into the writer's world. Ultimately this is a work that seeks to connect the Brautigan known to his fans with the man who ended his life so abruptly in 1984 while revealing the close ties between his writing and the actual events of his life. Part history, part biography, and part memoir this etches the portrait of a man destroyed by his genius.
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one: john doe number 9
RICHARD BRAUTIGAN NEVER heard his final gunshot. Traveling three times the speed of sound, the Winchester Western Super X .44 Magnum hollow point exploded up through the poet's head, destroying his face, dislodging his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, blasting off the back of his skull. Continuing on, the bullet tore a hole in the molding above a corner window, struck a one-by-four nailed inside, and fell back into the space within the wall. At the same instant, all his dreams, fears, hopes, and ambition were erased forever, his brain disintegrated, the nerves of his spinal cord were disconnected, and Brautigan's knees buckled, his body dropping straight down, as the weapon, a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver, flew from his lifeless hand. He was dead before he hit the floor.
It was a beautiful bright Sunday afternoon: September 16, 1984. Clad in tan corduroy trousers, a T-shirt, and socks, Richard Brautigan's body lay on its back in the main living area on the second floor of his house at 6 Terrace Avenue in Bolinas, California, a small seacoast village he referred to as "the freeze-dried sixties." His left front pocket held a crumpled $5 bill and a couple singles. A radio in the kitchen at the back of the house blared at full volume. Richard Brautigan was forty-nine years old when he died.
Next door, in a smaller house sharing the same unpaved semicircular driveway with Brautigan's place, his neighbor, Jim Zeno, watched football (Raiders/Chiefs) on TV with a friend. In the middle of a noisy touchdown, they heard an explosive boom outside. It seemed to come from Richard Brautigan's house. The two men exchanged a glance but said nothing, continuing to watch the game. Zeno's wife, Karly, came upstairs. "Did you hear that noise?" she asked. They discussed the strange sound, "definitely a loud bang," but there was no thought of going over to check on it. Part of being what Brautigan described as "impeccable neighbors" involved not entering his space except when invited, so the Zenos remained at home to watch Los Angeles come from behind and defeat Kansas City, 22–20, with a nineteen-yard field goal in the final minute of play.
Across the way, the acrid smell of cordite hung in the still, hot air. All the windows and doors at 6 Terrace Avenue were tightly shut, the blinds drawn. The shadowy house resonated with a radio's insistent discordant jabber. Four small bedrooms on the third floor were rarely used because Brautigan believed the ghost of a young Chinese woman dwelled in that part of the house. Various stories circulated about her. Some claimed she had drowned in the Bolinas Lagoon during World War I. Others said she'd been a servant, employed by the original owners, who had committed suicide in the house. Richard hung a looking glass on the wall over the stairway, telling his friend Dr. John Doss, "The reason I have a mirror here is because ghosts can't see themselves in mirrors." Brautigan's daughter, Ianthe, believed the mirror kept the ghost from coming downstairs.
Several visitors reported walking through mysterious cold spots, and an Eastern woman journalist claimed to have seen a young female sitting next to Brautigan on the torn black Naugahyde sofa while she interviewed him. When the writer Keith Abbott volunteered his pickup truck in 1973 to move boxes of books out to Bolinas, he was startled to see a momentary apparition in the tiny junk-filled upstairs east bedroom, "almost like a slide being placed in a projector of a girl wearing a white nightgown." He dismissed the unearthly vision as "a mild hallucination." Richard told him three other people had seen an identical specter.
The novelist Don Carpenter believed the ghost was a "twelve-year-old Japanese girl who lives in the house and determines what goes on." He based this assumption on testimony from two people who didn't know each other but had both seen the ghost on separate occasions. After Don's apartment in the city burned to the ground, he was living in his ex-wife's place in Mill Valley. Richard offered him the use of the Bolinas house for $100 a month, "a joke because the heating bill alone was $100 a month."
Keith Abbott and a buddy came over with his truck. They packed up Don's furniture and drove it to 6 Terrace Avenue. Because of a ruptured disc, Carpenter was unable to lift anything heavy, so he went inside to have a look around while Keith and his friend unloaded. "I've never had a more awful, dreadful, terrible, foreboding feeling," Don Carpenter recalled. "Except when I thought I was dying of cancer."
Don went back out to the driveway. All his furniture stood waiting to be moved inside. "Keith," he said, "I can't live here."
Because he had done none of the physical labor, Don felt uncomfortable about this. "These guys who were doing this for free. I didn't want to say, 'We've got to pack up this truck and go back to Mill Valley.' But I did and Keith said, 'I understand perfectly.' We packed up the truck and off we went."
The spacious second level served Brautigan as a combination living quarters and office. A large California state flag hung from the ceiling, functioning as a room divider between the barren fireplace and the kitchen door. The back roof leaked, and the floor boards in the rear had warped and buckled. The flag concealed the damage. Beneath it, the haunted sofa added solidity to the makeshift partition.
Richard Brautigan's six-foot four-inch body stretched full length in the southwest corner of the room. What remained of his head faced an unmade double bed, the tangled blankets suggesting a bachelor's inattentive housekeeping. His feet pointed toward the corner windows, where the .44 Magnum landed, barrel forward, on the seat of a blood-splattered white school desk, the kind with a single wide writing arm. A bloodied eyeglass lens rested upon it.
Brautigan's writing area, a large round table littered with various works in progress, stood to the right of his body, the hard blue chair he favored on the far side. A coffee cup sat among the scattered manuscripts and notebooks. Like some macabre action painting, blood and brains splashed vividly across the table's surface and sprayed the adjacent window. Richard's tan IBM typewriter sat nearby, the plastic cover gray with dust. When writer and performer Bobbie Louise Hawkins saw the shrouded machine she assumed he wasn't working. The ex-wife of poet Robert Creeley thought her friend had been fibbing when he came an hour late for a breakfast invitation, claiming to have written fifteen pages that morning.
Perhaps she didn't know Richard Brautigan did most of his preliminary work in longhand, scribbling away in spiral-bound notebooks and on stray scraps of paper, worrying poems and stories through multiple drafts in his pinched, childlike scrawl. His last efforts bore an ultimate validation: the writer's blood staining nearly every page. Brautigan left no final note rationalizing his suicide. This gory pile of manuscripts said it all.
Altogether, eight notebooks dating from earlier in the year lay, along with many assorted manuscripts, on the blood-soaked work table. For more than thirty years, Richard Brautigan had used his notebooks as a testing ground, beginning certain pieces over and over again. The material on the table contained many such false starts. There were more than two dozen handwritten drafts of poems and stories on the tissue-thin stationery of the Keio Plaza Inter-Continental Hotel, where Brautigan stayed when he was in Tokyo. Some were typewritten. Richard Brautigan had been a very fast typist. Machine-gun speed, blasting out a first draft with little thought for the niceties of spelling or punctuation, two skills he never mastered. "Determination," rendered quickly, became "dtertination." Richard paused only when something felt wrong. He used a repeated virgule (/////) to cross out unwanted material.
All his work went to a professional typist who corrected any orthographic oversights. The idea was to get it all down on paper as fast as possible, straight from the unconscious to the page, first word — best word, a notion Brautigan acquired in San Francisco's North Beach during the early "Renaissance" days of the Beat movement. Breakneck first drafts proved an apt counterpoint to his pensive notebook ruminations.
Six typed transcriptions from earlier handwritten drafts were stacked neatly elsewhere in the room, untouched by Brautigan's blood. These included "The Complete Absence of Twilight" (a brief, haunting piece of fiction, which Brautigan optimistically referred to as a "book" in a letter sent to his agent, Jonathan Dolger, from Tokyo the previous April; three short stories ("Mussels," "The Habitue," and "Sandwalker"); a six-page extract from "The Fate of a West German Model in Tokyo," compressing the manuscript into twin enumerated lists of monologue; and a finished version of "Russell Chatham: Portrait of an Artist in his Time," which had gone through three previous incarnations in the notebooks.
Russell Chatham had lived in downtown Bolinas in the 1960s. The painter rented an apartment and a separate studio upstairs in the old H. Hoirut property, a complex of late-nineteenth-century buildings on Wharf Road. At the time the first floor was the home of a hamburger joint called Scowley's. Chatham and Brautigan did not know one another back then. The impoverished poet lived in San Francisco and would not buy the house on Terrace Avenue until 1972. The painter, yet to sell a single canvas, settled in Bolinas, attracted by the low rents.
For years, the simple, cheap life lured numbers of artists and bohemians north from the city. During Chatham's residency, Bolinas was also home to poets Robert Creeley and Tom Clark (then poetry editor of the Paris Review); painter Arthur Okamura; a movie-making outfit called Dome Film Productions; writers Thomas McGuane and William Hjortsberg (both unpublished at the time; Chatham later referred to them as "two guys like me who didn't have jobs"); and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who owned a large home on the beach at the far end of Brighton Avenue, once a popular seaside teahouse called The Ship's Lantern.
Bolinas, California, had hardly changed in over a hundred years. Local citizens tore down the highway signs marking a turnoff from Route 1 faster than the California state road crews replaced them. At the time of Brautigan's death, the old blacksmith shop still functioned as an auto repair garage. Smiley's Schooner Saloon, built in the 1850s, had operated as a tavern almost all of that time under various names. Across the street, a false-fronted grocery had been slicing cold meat and cheese at the same location since 1863. It was the town Richard Brautigan called "a hippie Brigadoon." Set above the street, the three-story house at 6 Terrace Avenue, a dark, brown-shingled Arts and Crafts movement building made of locally milled redwood around 1885, was part of the Grande Vista Tract, Marin County's first subdivision. Screened by several tall redwood trees and a growth of Scotch broom nearly two stories high that blocked a potentially fine view of the ocean, the place remained perpetually in shadow. Overgrown with ivy, the garage resembled a small hill more than a building. Richard refused to have any of it cut, preferring the illusion of privacy provided by the dense foliage.
The house was gloomy inside as well. Raw ceiling beams and dark redwood walls had been unaltered since drying bouquets hung from the rafters when the place had been the summer home of Mary Elizabeth Parsons, who wrote the influential guidebook The Wildflowers of California: Their Names, Haunts and Habits (first published in 1897). Brautigan's poet/playwright friend Michael McClure remembered Parsons's "jewel-like descriptions of California wildflowers" as "among the best prose-poetry of the end of the nineteenth century."
On September 16, 1984, the musky smell of congealing blood lingered in the enclosed air, not the sweetness of dried flowers. The loud radio echoing from the kitchen drowned an insistent buzz of gathering flies. As it grew dark, the automatic timer controlling the electric lights switched on. A little later, the phone rang. After four rings, the answering machine picked up and the tape of Richard's voice sounded bland and noncommittal: "This is the recorded voice of Richard Brautigan. He's not in right now. Leave a message when you hear the beep and I may return your call." But there was no beep, only a dull click. Richard had set the machine on "answer only," making it impossible to leave a message.
"Hello, Richard ...? Are you there ...? It's me."
No answer, just the buzz of disconnection. The caller was painter Marcia Clay, an old friend from San Francisco who had reunited with Brautigan only two days earlier after a four-year estrangement. She'd phoned an hour before midnight the previous night. He said he'd call right back but never did. Marcia waited ten minutes and phoned back, getting Richard's answering machine message. Alone on a hot night in the city, she made a third attempt to reach him, hearing only the noncommittal message.
For the next few days, the old house remained a noisy tomb. No one came around to visit. Brautigan had alienated himself from most of his poet friends in Bolinas and had recently been eighty-sixed from Smiley's for his unpleasant, erratic behavior. Occasionally, the phone rang. Although she wrote in her diary that she didn't "have the energy or interest to play cat and mouse with him," Marcia Clay kept trying to reach Richard. So did Curt Gentry, Don Carpenter, Andy Cole, and Tony Dingman, writing and drinking buddies from the old days in North Beach.
Montana poet Greg Keeler tried to leave a message. Ditto journalist Toby Thompson, calling from Cabin John, Maryland. Richard's attorney in Livingston phoned three times the following week. Jonathan Dolger, his New York literary agent, made several calls. He had good news regarding the possible sale of the film rights to Dreaming of Babylon to Warner Brothers. They all got the answering machine with its disconcerting click.
At some point early in October, one of the neighbors came over, annoyed by the blasting radio. Because the stairs to the upper deck had rotted and been removed, whoever it was knocked on the door of the true first floor, a nearly empty spare bedroom and storage area. No answer. Brautigan had departed on one of his lengthy journeys without having the decency to turn off the damned radio. Wanting to silence the round-the-clock radio playing, the irate neighbor found the central power breaker by the meter and switched off all the electricity to the house.
Upstairs, all was quiet now, except for the metallic drone of the flies. There were many, many flies, a nightmare population of blowflies, houseflies, bluetails, and greenbottles swarming everywhere in the melancholy twilight of the shaded main room. They clustered densely about Brautigan's corpse. Thickening blood and the enormous head wound provided powerful attractions for these rapacious insects. The inexorable process of decay began the moment his body hit the floor a couple weeks before.
With the power switched off, the automatic timer failed to trigger the lights that night and the house remained shrouded in darkness. The Zenos next door thought nothing of it. Richard was always coming and going mysteriously. He had his own peculiar reasons for the way he did things. He had mentioned that he might leave for a hunting trip to Montana in early October. Maybe he decided not to leave the light-timer on. When the phone in Brautigan's office/bedroom rang, the answering machine, running now on internal batteries, continued to pick up and deliver the same noncommittal message. It was a perfect vanishing act. The dead poet had managed to completely disappear.
The long, hot California fall days merged into weeks. Heat accelerated the process of decomposition and the eager swarming flies, finding easy access through the massive cranial damage, deposited thousands of their eggs inside Brautigan's body. When they hatched, the cadaver teemed with maggots, the rice-sized larvae writhing in his decaying flesh. At the same time, the batteries in the answering machine began wearing down and the recorded message grew distorted, the words slurred, like a man underwater. Even this final echo of the poet's voice began to die.
If no one in Bolinas seemed to care that Richard Brautigan had disappeared (either they were no longer talking to him and just didn't give a damn or else he had told them he was leaving on an extended journey), others among his closest friends began to grow concerned. At one point, Klyde Young, a housepainter and friend of Brautigan's who had done odd jobs for the writer off and on for the past dozen years, ran into Jim Zeno in Stinson Beach. Young was alarmed to hear that no one had been to Richard's house in more than two weeks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jubilee Hitchhiker"
Copyright © 2012 William Hjortsberg.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
books by william hjortsberg,
part one: - flowerburger,
one: john doe number 9,
two: honor thy father,
three: american dust,
four: tacoma ghosts,
five: dick porterfield,
six: midnight driver's ed,
seven: pounding at the gates of american literature,
eight: white wooden angel of love,
nine: the rub of a strange cat,
ten: family album,
thirteen: on the beach,
fifteen: the general,
sixteen: scorpio rising,
seventeen: scaling mount parnassus,
eighteen: gone fishing,
nineteen: the fastest car on earth,
twenty: o, tannenbob,
twenty-two: aborted dreams,
twenty-three: the museum,
twenty-four: the emperor's new clothes,
twenty-five: digger daze,
twenty-six: rx: dr. leary,
twenty-eight: bread and circuses,
thirty: brief encounter,
thirty-one: summer of love,
part two: - bushido gunslinger,
thirty-two: hitching a ride,
thirty-three: ten-day barons,
thirty-four: the great public library publishing caper,
thirty-five: cover girls,
thirty-seven: fame's feathery crowbar,
thirty-eight: lit crit,
thirty-nine: my home's in montana,
forty: over easy,
forty-one: the five-year plan,
forty-three: throwing a hoolihan,
forty-five: tokyo throes,
forty-six: the paradise valley ladies' book club luncheon,
forty-eight: rattrap roulette,
forty-nine: banned in the boondocks,
fifty-one: trouble and strife,
fifty-three: midnight express,
fifty-five: blowing in the wind,
fifty-seven: the itch,
fifty-eight: the pitch,
fifty-nine: the end,