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.