Sunday, 7 May 2017


My obituary of the novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper at some point. As far as I have seen, apart from a nice one in the Livingston Enterprise, this is the onliest one that has appeared in the press, and that is a shame. I remember enjoying the comedy of Alp and the audaciousness of Gray Matters, and then being shocked at the change of tone in Falling Angel, which surely is a classic.

Although the obit is basically as I wrote it, there were a lot of small trims, and one big one which we will get to. Given the laid-back of the life of the man his friends knew as 'Gatz' (which was excised from the piece) I thought it might be worthwhile to patch up those little details which I thought rounded out the story. Because, as Louis Cyphre might say, the devil is in the details. For example, I don't know why but I thought it important to say that the Johnny Favourite whom Cyphre hires Harry Angel to find had been a famous crooner, which makes his disappearance even harder to fathom.

When Hjortsberg was little, his father had a country house in the Catskills, where young Bill learned to fish, something he would continue in Montana. At Dartmouth, he used a photographic memory to allow him to work in the pizza joint nights while going to college in the days. He and McGuane won Stegner Fellowships at Stanford: this was probably the most prestigious creative-writing programme in America:
before McGuane and Hjortsberg it had included Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Peter S Beagle and George V Higgins (though its 'hit rate' isn't as impressive afterwards). Before starting at Stanford, Hjortsberg and his wife Marian travelled in Europe and Central America; this comes up in a couple of books, including the recent Manana, which I will review here soon.

It also comes up in Toro! Toro! Toro!. I explained that the title was a play on Tora! Tora! Tora!, which had been a movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; I was then asked by the desk to explain what Tora meant: tora (tiger) was the code word to signal the attack was underway; an acronym for TOtsugeki RAigeki, usually translated as lightning attack.

I mentioned the unlikely influence of Per Lagerkvist's The Dwarf on Alp. When Tom McGuane advised Hjortsberg to take up screenwriting, he said 'it's like taking candy from a baby', which was an echo of Herman Mankiewicz's famous 1925 telegram offering Ben Hecht $300 to come out to Hollywood: "'Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around." I also noted that the screenplay Nomad was constantly being optioned, so although Hjortsberg had few credits, between options and doctoring, he kept earning. 

Hjortsberg's first marriage and a brief second one both ended in divorce. In 2000 he was set up with Janie Camp by the western writer Richard Wheeler and his wife, two more of the Montana gang. This seemed somehow fitting, as Gatz was not only at the centre of the gang, but his son Max married Jim Harrison's daughter Anna, which made them sort of royalty. Having written Harrison's obit for the Guardian (you can find it here), I felt like it was something I should mention. 

There's a picture of Brautigan sitting round a table with McGuane and, I think Jim Harrison, and a couple of bottles of bourbon. The other people aren't facing the table but I wonder if one of them is Hjortsberg. He spent two decades researching that Brautigan biography, and though I was not tempted to read it, I am now. We forget not only how important a writer Brautigan was for a brief time, but also how very talented at his peak, with his combination of minimalism and surrealism (or what Robert Bly would call 'leaping'). His life was also one of extreme difficulty, and though such a big book seems the antithesis of Brautigan's work, I am getting the sense that karmatically, his life may have demanded it. Or it may just have been an obsessions, but either way it makes sense. 

It's odd that I should think Hjortsberg in later years resembled Noam Chomsky a bit. He died from pancreatic cancer. He had finished the sequel to Falling Angel, and was going to call it Burning Angel, except James Lee Burke, another Montana-based writer, published a novel with that title. Burke apparently told Hjortsberg to use it anyway, but the book will be published under a different title, which he wouldn't tell interviewers.

 He did, however, respond last year when an interviewer asked him for some 'parting words', which was a prescient if not ominous query. Hjortsberg told him "live every day to its fullest. Suck it in. It's all so brief". Which is a good way to end an interview, or a life, or an obituary. It was how I ended mine, though sadly, it's not how it ends in the paper. RIP.


Maxim Jakubowski said...

I have a copy of his Brautigan biography but still not got round to reading it as it's so big, nearly 2220,000 words by my reckoning... And large format in addition to the number of pages...

Michael Carlson said...

Yes, ironic isn't it? About a writer who worked so minimally. From what I read, I think this just subsumed WH, as he wanted to get every detail, and kept plugging away with interviews. I don't know as I need to know that much about RB...