William Hjortsberg — Somebody You Should Read, Hear?

Official site of one of the writers who fundamentally changed the character of my home town.

The musts? These —

Alp (belongs with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22 and more playful and funny than either)

Grey Matters (forgotten even among his fans — sure as hell deserving of the next lost-marvel-of-science-fiction revival)

Toro! Toro! Toro! (the “bullfight novel” the ghost of Hemingway wishes he had written)

Falling Angel (at least this was seen right away as a noir as sharp and inventive as Grey Matters in sci-fi was not)

Nevermore (unclassifiable as Alp and as much, if darker, fun).


Angel Heart (a perfect adaptation of Falling Angel)

One I’d most like to see made: Morning of the Magicians


The High Days —


Gatz 1

Paradise Players production of Twelfth Night in Emigrant, MT, 1974 —


Feste the jester is “Gatz” — in the middle. Grand artist Russell Chatham who designed the sets, in white shirt in back.


R.I.P.: Robert B. Silvers

The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice were the bookends of my literary fantasies about New York and the East Coast in general, back when I had never been out here. Brainy/wild — lively/civilized … they could make you feel less lonely out in the thickets and ranges. One aspect I most admired about NY Review is that it was thorough.

Hey, a Jackson Pollock I Actually Like!

Finished the Sebastian Smee book The Art of Rivalry (highly recommended) and one payoff of reading top-notch art books is that you are almost certain to find a work that you did not know that matters a bunch.

Now, with Francis Bacon (another subject in the book, paired with Lucian Freud) I’ve had an interesting evolution. He was dissed in John Berger’s The Art of Seeing in part because Berger claimed Bacon painted the way he did because his limited drawing skills left him no choice. When I read Berger 40 years ago I thought he maybe had a point — I had seen only reproductions of Bacon’s paintings. But about 20 years later I saw an actual Bacon retrospective and Berger was fried. The Irishman’s[*] paintings are shattering, harrowing, stupefying and intoxicating to look at. I agree with Berger it would be tough to have one in your dining room, but not because they are insincere, grotesque cartoons. It matters not a whit that Bacon “had” to paint the way he did.

It does make a difference that Jackson Pollock, even more technically challenged than Bacon, finally found an outlet all his own despite his limitations. I can’t get past the surface of almost all of his stuff I’ve seen — not because it’s “decorative” or whatever, but because it’s simply a chronicle of skittering mental chaos. This is not as dismissive as it might seem — every painting is a portrait of the artist’s mental state. But there’s no way into Pollock for me. Doesn’t help that Smee confirms how obnoxious, hateful, violent and deranged he was too much of the time. I’ve never bought the argument that you have to be a wild person to make wild art. (I do accept the weird rituals and routines of the ’30s-’50s art world in New York that Smee describes.)

But behold — suddenly in the midst of this, I am directed to a Pollock that is just a flicker before his breakthrough into his fame-gaining style. And I can read it emotionally. This work — not in his most famous action-drip mode — conveys torment and confusion with one’s own mind that moves me. It’s called “Stenographic Figure”:


There’s actually two figures, of course, but their postures, distortions, and above all the racket of forms scattered in front and behind and everywhere on the canvass feels exactly right to me. In this one, Jackson Pollock made you sense what he had to deal with every day, and even merge with it.

  • Reading more about Bacon I smacked my forehead as I reminded myself that, while he was born in Dublin, both his parents were English.

R.I.P.: J.S.G. Boggs

If your Mom appears as “Margo, Queen of the Jungle” I’m sure an eccentric career is in the cards and the genes.

Another point is that only one artist can do the counterfeit-bills-are-art routine, or at least only one artist can make it his primary bit and become quasi-famous. Boggs lived at the right time to make this work. And, hell, I think his art did provoke interesting questions. But I bet a lot of the time him using his artworks as money got him called a motherbucker.

R.I.P.: Byron Dobell

Quite the extravagant career(s). (And life, really.) Ending up making a living at his first passion is quite a satisfying turn. (I vaguely knew he became a painter, but had forgotten.) In an era that doesn’t even bother with copy-editors, it’s a remarkable reminder of how much clout a visionary editor could have.

Of course, the downside is all that gossiping and the constant pecking-order adjustments. Clubs and cabals and cults — I miss the literary power I grew up with, but I don’t miss that aspect of it at all.

R.I.P.: John Berger

A terrific model for how to write critical essays driven by clear, powerful, whole thoughts and observations. Ways of Seeing will get all the attention, but right after that I would push for About Looking.

Which provoked lively internal discussion as I read — the zoo-animal-and-people parallels are a bit off, but provocative; I don’t  buy the Rodin arguments; but the Giacometti chapter is brilliant. And so on. Timeless stuff.

Couldn’t get into his fiction at all.