R.I.P.: Gatz Hjortsberg, Pt. Two

I floundered around in high school trying to explore the complete range of lit and poetry – sure wasn’t gonna find it out in Eng. Class. So right before high school, even, this door-to-door type pitched my parents a book series called Masterpieces of World Literature  — this is the current (much reduced) version of it. I said yeah, yeah, yeah – and you know, it wasn’t bad. Turned me on to many things. But they wanted to keep you sending them checks, so they also published an annual volume that selected the best fiction and nonfiction from the previous year.

In one of those annuals, I read a rave piece on William Hjortsberg’s Alp that made it sound like the hoot of my dreams. Then – yowsah! – I see there’s a copy sitting in the higher-brow Livingston bookstore (the one that didn’t have porn in the back room). As I buy it, the dear friend and son of the owners, John Fryer, tells me – “the writer of this lives in town, you know.” After I picked up the pieces of my exploded brain, I begged him to arrange a meeting. Novelists, writers in general, were only half-imaginable fantasy figures for us reader kids. Fryer (as we called him) gave Hjortsberg a call and he said, sure I’ll talk to these locals.

I went out to the rather nice spread in Paradise Valley with my best arts friend, Scott Franzen. We were both apprehensive. Easy to imagine an actual published novelist would look down on these potato boys from the sticks who imagined they knew something about literature and wanted to be writers.

First last and only time I addressed him as “Mr. Hjortsberg.”

“Gatz — always call me Gatz.”

We cracked open beers (smoked a little pot — which was way wild for us at that time) and started talking about living in Livingston, the art of writing, the state of novels and the culture, and dreams and visions and scooting all over the topics. Gatz was warm and friendly and encouraging and an instant pal. I had no idea how many competitive writers there were who would regard even a couple ambitious kids as a threat.

I can’t remember too many specifics. He told us about the whole history of the house he lived in. His beautiful wife stayed very meekly in the background. The one exchange that has never faded is his description of how hard it was not to be mischievous with his own children. He recounted that his little boy had become terrified of going down the stairs into the dark basement. Gatz said he could not help himself when he explained:

“Don’t worry. There’s nothing down there … except the Moth King.”


All I remember after that is that our junker car got mired in the mud outside his house and all three of us got caked in muck as Gatz pulled us out of the trench with his pickup. But I will always consider that night a shining transformation, when being a writer went from something impossible to something not only doable but desirable. When a community of writers, if they were all like Gatz, would be a delight every day.

About a dozen years later – I touched base with Gatz from time to time intervening – I worked with the organizers of a Writers’ Conference at the University of Missoula to make sure the theme was “writers who live in Montana” and that Gatz was invited as a compensated reader and speaker. He was a big hit, enjoyed by everybody. One of his finest qualities was that whenever he encountered me, he was able to bring the feel of that first night in Paradise Valley back to life.

Whatever the karma, my direction was changing as my poetry and short stories dried up around the time that I learned, yes, “Surrealism is a young person’s game.” When the visions dried up, I wanted to write about excellent art – world-class as possible – not the miserable few hip bands that played MT. So off to Boston. I noticed this week that I bought two additional copies of Alp – one from a library and one a British edition.

Encountered Gatz on and off over the years. Made damn sure I got an autographed copy of his final novel, Mañana when we were last in Livingston. In it, he wrote something he had done before:

“For Milo Miles, a true son of the West …”

This was not just a catchphrase, but a reminder that he had heard Scott and me describe how we belonged in Livingston but did not fit in. I’ve had trouble feeling at home anywhere in my life. This was Gatz’s way to affirm he believed Livingston had shaped me, was in my blood, was something I could embrace and cherish always.

Journalism/Criticism/Literature Bucket List Check-Off

My first published review was of Tom Robbins’s debut novel, Another Roadside Attraction. I am proud to say I got it pretty much right, claimed the guy would become wildly popular and have a flashy career.

So when I read that Robbins stated he found his voice when he wrote a 1967 review of a Doors concert for the alternative paper in Seattle, I had to track it down and read it. I mean, a favorite part of my career was spent doing the exact same sort of piece for the exact same sort of outlet!

So this afternoon there it was, in Wild Ducks Flying Backward: The Short Writings of Tom Robbins.

Yes, that would be doors. But, my God, what doors are these? Imagine jewel glass panels, knobs that resemble spitting phalluses, mail slots that glow like jack-o’-lantern lips — and not a welcome mat in sight. Enter if you dare, my children, exit if you can.

The Doors. Their style is early cunnilingual, late patricidal, lunchtime in the Everglades, Black Forest blood sausage on electrified bread, Jean Genet up a totem pole, artists at the barricades, Edgar Allen Poe drowning in his birdbath, Massacre of the Innocents, tarantella of the satyrs, bacchanalian, Dionysian, LA pagans drawing down the moon.

That’s that voice, alrighty.

I like to dream that, had I been Music Editor at the Helix in ’67, I would have had the insight to run that as is — evocative, funny, worthy of Jimbo and the Boys.

R.I.P.: Jonathan Demme

(I may say more later — right now I’m having trouble processing all these people passing on.)

Equals parts filmmaker and music nut and creator after my own heart. I thought a good deal of his stuff didn’t quite work, but every time out I could precisely feel and understand where he was trying to go.

The neglected item: Melvin and Howard. Eccentric, sure, but how many movies are not only eccentric but one-of-a-kind?

Favorite uplift from source material: Silence of the Lambs. The book, which I was captivated by the flick enough to read afterward, is clunky and ordinary in comparison. Every change Demme made is an improvement. Wise to shun sequels.

The ultimate of course is Stop Making Sense. Changed the way amplified concerts were filmed. No band could ask for a finer monument. I was riveted by right from the first of the several times I’ve seen it. About halfway through it hit me: “Ho-lee crap — there’s no question this is more exciting and overwhelming than seeing the actual show. No single audience position could knock out your brains like this!”

R.I.P.: Robert M. Pirsig

Writer who nailed his moment. 

Nice that Montana State University honored him.

(Though I have to be honest and say when he taught there, it was the toilet of writing-teacher jobs. But by all accounts he had wonderful effects and I wish I could have studied with him as …. a … well … 7-to-9 year old kid.)

I thought Zen and the Art was a captivating book, drew you into the spell of a flamboyant storyteller who was capturing a cross-America jaunt in the lineage of the Beats, the Merry Pranksters and itself as a final chapter. The land wouldn’t seem as open after the mid-’70s. I did not consider it profound, though I appreciated the boost for my interest in Buddhism and thought it laid out a detailed, off-beat, personality.

What I really resent, though, are comparisons that claim the book is a “post-counterculture” influence the way Carlos Castaneda is a ’60s influence.

Whatever its limitations and overrations, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not a malevolent fraud.

My Fondest Memory of CNN

I got the flash when everybody else did — the Gulf War start in 1991. Sure, CNN had been around in the ’80s, but whenever I tuned in, it suggested a dozy news-radio station. The quality of the reporting and the vitality of the channel as a whole went way up.

How the exciting have fallen.

Cable news is rightly damned for their ruinous decline into reporting as entertainment click-bait shouting match. All I will say — and its not really a defense — is that the basics of what CNN used to do best would now be available on everybody’s smart phone.