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Author's Life Was Shaped in Eugene

by Don Bishoff

Writer Richard Brautigan didn't make it to his 40th Eugene High School reunion last weekend, but Bill Hjortsberg? did — in search of Brautigan.

Not literally, you understand. Brautigan killed himself in 1984.

But Hjortsberg is looking for pieces of the Brautigan life story, a story with enough bizarre touches to be one of Brautigan's own weird works of fiction. Such as the time he threw a rock through the Eugene Police Department window — and apparently got committed as a result.

The flamboyant Brautigan was one of the comets of the literary cosmos of the 1960s and '70s. He wrote scores of short novels, short poems and really short stories — with strange metaphors and stranger titles — and captured the imagination of the hip generation.

"Trout Fishing in America" sold 2 million copies. Other works included "A Confederate General from Big Sur," "In Watermelon Sugar," and "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster."

"Richard so thoroughly embodies the spirit of the '60s — he was the '60s," said Hjortsberg, who has an advance from publisher Alfred Knopf to do the biography. "His writing helped create what became the ideology of the '60s. As much as Jerry Rubin? or Ken Kesey or anybody else, Richard Brautigan was a player in that."

Personally, I hated "Trout Fishing in America." Indulgent nonsense. But Brautigan's short story "Revenge of the Lawn?" is one of the funniest I ever read.

Like most of Eugene, I never knew of his local connection until Hjortsberg — a novelist, screenwriter ("Legend") and former Montana neighbor of Brautigan's — began his biographical quest two years ago.

Brautigan and his mother had moved to Eugene in 1945 and lived here until 1956. He attended Lincoln Elementary, Wilson Junior High and the old Eugene High School at 17th and Olive.

So Hjortsberg got himself invited to the Class of '53 reunion at Valley River Inn in hopes of mining lots of Brautigan lore. But Brautigan turns out to be the proverbial prophet without honor.

"Most people have never heard of him as a writer," Hjortsberg said. "And most of them couldn't remember him from high school. It was along the lines of 'Oh, yeah, the tall blond-haired kid. He was kind of a loner.'"

But Hjortsberg did meet two Brautigan teammates from a church basketball team, and got phone numbers of others. (Brautigan was the center, and the other starters were two sets of twins — which sounds like something from one of his stories.)

And he learned that Brautigan's English teacher, Juliet Gibson, may have been a major early influence. He's asking that anyone with information about Gibson phone him today or Thursday morning at his motel (342-6383).

While here, Hjortsberg also reinterviewed Brautigan's mother, Mary Lou Folstom? who still lives in Eugene, and Edna Webster?, who was sort of a second mother.

Webster's son, Peter, was a school friend, and Brautigan hung around the Webster house. He spent a lot of time talking to Edna and falling in first-love with her teenage daughter, Linda — who wanted nothing to do with him.

That put him in such a funk, Edna Webster said, that he went to the police station in the old City Hall at 11th and Willamette and asked to be arrested. When the cops turned him down, he threw a rock through the window.

Then they arrested him.

He was sent to the state mental hospital in Salem for observation and — he later claimed to Webster — shock treatment. In old microfilms of The Register-Guard Hjortsberg found a front-page 1955 story about the rock throwing, but is still searching for documentation of the state hospital stay.

Brautigan left Eugene in 1956 — and, for still-unclear reasons, never again had any contact with his mother, stepbrothers or stepsisters. But he left Edna Webster with a batch of notebooks — full of handwritten poems and stories — and a letter.

He told Webster that the notebooks were for her "Social Security when I am rich and famous."

Webster put the material in a safe deposit box long ago — and lost the key. Last year, Hjortsberg paid to have the lock drilled, made photocopies of the notebooks and then put Webster in touch with a rare-book dealer.

The dealer paid her $23,000 for the material. But the 78-year-old Webster said, "I can survive on what I have." So she donated the money to Renual, a non-profit agency she co-founded to help people in financial trouble.

One of Brautigan's last works, "So the Wind WOn't Blow It All Away," is full of references to Eugene and Oregon, Hjortsberg said. But Brautigan's comet already had begin to flame out, and the book was panned. His publisher rejected his next one.

Brautigan had been married and divorced twice. He had one daughter, Ianthe, who is married and living in California. In September 1984, at the age of 49, he shot and killed himself at his home in Bolinas California.

His body wasn't found until the next month.

"I think he had this sense that he'd ridden the crest and tasted quite a lot of fame and had quite a lot of money — and that this was all ebbing away," Hjortsberg said. "I think he thought — this is all speculation — 'What is left? What do I become, an assistant professor at some junior college in Kansas?'

"I think he just decided, 'To hell with that. A legend has a legendary end.' So I think that this was just one more step in his shaping, in his creating, the legend and career of Richard Brautigan."

The Register-Guard?
August 25, 1993: 1B, 2B

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