He was a mentor to than one of my friends at the University of Montana.
He grew up on a ranch in Eastern Oregon memorialized in his book, “Owning it All”. Then he became a professor for many years at the University of Montana, Missoula where he mentored more people in the west than anyone before or since, writers as diverse as Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass to Gary Nabhan, and Robert Michael Pyle.
I think it will be no insult to his memory to say he will be remembered best as a mentor and teacher. His writing was good, but his mentoring was unparalleled and is exemplified by the collection “The Last Best Place“.
Gary Nabhan wrote in “Twenty-Five Authors Pay Tribute to William Kittredge’s Passing.”
Bill Kittredge will remain among the giants of fiction and nonfiction writing in American West, up there with McCarthy, Hugo, Welch, Silko, McGuane, Austin, Ehrlich, Cather, and Harrison in our pantheon of poetic voices from rural America’s scrappy, roughed-up, and wildly imaginative towns and ranches. But anyone who conversed, traveled, ate, or drank with Bill no doubt remembers his unswerving warmth, hilarious humor, poignant commentaries, and deep commitment to make life in the boonies more memorable, compassionate, morally fierce, and ultimately, culturally richer. He gifted us a New Story for the West, one most of us are still trying to live up to, and in. In the last three decades of his life, he also took on the voice of a prophet and sage, as stunning in his place-based pronouncements as Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, Charles Wilkinson, Terry Williams, John Nichols, Annick Smith or Winona LaDuke. He made you feel deeply comfortable, but he also challenged us to think beyond the horizon of our own messy lives to forge a West that would be more inclusive, reflective, and refreshing. The twinkle in his merry eyes will never die, but will arch over us like a meteor of hope.
I just received word that Joe Brown died; he was 90. I did not know him well, but I knew him and enjoyed him.
He was the often-unsung BEST of all the cowboy writers, certainly of the border writers. He could throw a rope and tell a story. He bought ranches on both sides of the Rio Grande – sometime in cash (gold coins!) He was down and out and sometimes got moving money. With the last, he once bought an airplane that he used to clip the radio mast off a whore house of a Madam, who had offended him, on the border.
When I first met him, he told me a long-winded story about he and old cowboy from Magdalena, Fred Martin, had paused at a whorehouse on the boarder, when they were smuggling cattle across in WWII. He said, the girls called him in, because “the old son-of-a-bitch wouldn’t take off his boots.” I told this story to his great granddaughter, she said, “that’s so grandpa, that’s so cute.”
He wrote the best boarder novel ever, “Forests of the Night”, about a cattle-killing jaguar, its English is fascinating, written entirely in Spanish syntax. It’s a chilling novel besides.
In my opinion he wrote the best working cowboy novel, “The Outfit.”
Jim Harrison said of him, “JPS Brown is the great restorer of the great American quest.”
Silvio Calabi and Co. hav come out with a new ed of the already- good Hemingways’s Guns that adds the Cuban guns from the Finca Vigia (a uniformly ruined unshootable lot BTW) to the already good scholarship of the first volume. Two things are particularly notable. First, most American rich folks back then shot good versions of the same guns as their less well- off contemporaries, not aristocrats’ or Best guns. Hem shot a Model 12, some 21’s, a Springfield, many Winchesters, and a humpback Browning; so did my father, and I have owned them all. The only real “Best” he ever owned was the Westley .577, and he disliked shooting it.
And though Patrick H debunked it long ago as a myth propagated by “Miss Mary” (I believe): Hemingway not only didn’t shoot himself with a Boss; he never owned a London Best shotgun! Calabi has done real detective work here, finding the remnants of the W & C Scott lock from the fatal gun.
For all fans of Hem and guns, (except perhaps those put off by the NYRB article that called the book “sick fetishism”– !)
And on another gun matter, congratulations to reader Phil Yearout, who just got published in Shooting Sportsman!
Chris Waddington, my old editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and now a happier man in his belovcd New Orleans (even though Katrina flooded his house) emailed to tell me that our mutual friend Gatz Hjortsberg died at his home in Livingston after a “short illness” i.e. pancreatic cancer (it’s a bad one; it’s the one that took down Bob Jones after he survived prostate cancer.)
As I said to Chris, our friendship was cordial, but not particularly close. Still, we were part of the same Montana scene and went to the same parties, where Michael Katakis would groan “Oh God, Gatz and Bodio are both here — nobody else will be able to get in a word.” Probably true, and I think they’re all the better for it. He was always known as “Gatz”, never Bill or William, apparently because of a youthful infatuation with the work of Scott Fitzgerald, especially The Great Gatsby. Besides, he wore all those cool hats.
He was utterly intrepid.He was one of Pat’s boys” at Sports Illustrated, and his first assignment was to ride a BULL.He did it, too.
Gatz was undervalued as a writer of books, perhaps because he was a writer of genre books in a literary field. He followed his friend Tom McGuane to Livingston from grad school, because McGuane was the only writer he knew who fished. Among the schools he attended was Stanford, where like McGuane, he was a Stegner Fellow; that is, someone whom Wallace Stegner abused. This was good company to be in; among the other people Stegner called bums, hippies, beatniks, and worthless were Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, and the lesser known but fascinating David Shetzline, who wrote one of the only two good novels I know of about forest fires. Among Gatz’s books were the dark fantasy Alp and the darker sci- fi Gray Matters in the early years, and the Mexican thriller Manana recently. But his best knows was Falling Angel , which was made into a movie starring Mickey Rourke. He also wrote Nevermore where he wrote the following wonderful inscription in my copy:
He also wrote a puzzling biography of “Poor Old Richard” Brautigan, which took him about 14 years and was rejected by its first publisher. In the end it ran to 862 pages, any 100 of which were brilliant. I can’t help but think that Richard’s own words might apply: ” In this world, where there is only a little time to spend, I think I’ve spent enougth time on this butterfly.” *
No matter. Gatz Hjortsberg was a gentleman and a writer, and he will be missed.
*The quote about the butterfly is a close paraphrase. I’m not going to look it up at this hour!
Reading the WSJ, I was startled to encounter two old friends in an unusual context. The relevant passage:
I called Russsell, who is in California and recovering from a shoulder operation ( casting lead- core steelhead lines in deep water for 60 years has got to have SOME effect!) and he was as bemused as I was.
Novelist Tom McGuane, while noted for his horses and pointing dogs, has always had a feel for birds of prey, notices them, and on occasion writes lyrically about them. There is a vivid set piece in the novel Something to Be Desired, in which which the protagonist, LucienTaylor, takes his young son, who does not live with him, to lure a Prairie falcon in to trap on a pigeon, using a falconry practice to band the bird to study. The child is frightened, startled by the bird’s falling from the sky like a hammer onto the luckless bait bird, but Lucien is ecstatic, with the emotions of a true hawk trapper.
“There were feathers everywhere, and the hawk beat in a blur of cold fury, striking at Lucien with his downcurving knife of a beak and superimposing his own screech over the noise of James. “We’ve got him, James!” James, quiet now, looked ready to run. The hawk had stopped all motion but kept his beak marginally parted so that the small, hard black tongue could be seen advancing and retreating slightly within his mouth. ‘It’s a prairie falcon. It’s the most beautiful bird in the world. I want to come back as a prairie falcon.’ “
This is a man who has been there. Here is another lyrical piece, from the more recent Driving On the Rim:
Really? He was a “writer’s writer”, and a maker of perfect sentences and some small perfect books, as well as a big one– in that sense, and because of the slightly icy perfection of his best work, he was never going to be a pop success– but maybe he never wanted to be. Having your last big novel published by Knopf and selling respectably is hardly a case of failure.
Nor should my phrase about small perfect books be construed as anything precious. He was also compared to Hemingway and that would be right if it were the correct concept of Hemingway– the artist who on some level wanted to paint like Matisse. The “Beeb” said that he “became known for exploring masculine themes like conflict – provoking comparisons to Ernest Hemingway.” But though both believed in precision in art, courage, and “grace under pressure”, Hemingway did not become a career Air Force officer, which Salter did, showing a serious commitment to something in addition to writing.
Salter also wrote the first– some would say only– great climbing novel, Solo Faces, making him a cult figure to male climbers of our generation. The rest of his works other than Solo Faces and The Hunters were about men and women and eros and marriage, and he might have written on these themes, at least narrowly, better than any other male of his generation, the generation that thought there actually was a Great American Novel. None of the obvious contenders ever move me much.
He was also something of a self- creation, though he was open about it. Born Salzmann (not sure of the spelling) he made a conscious decision to change his name before he went into the service. He never apologized but never changed his name back, either.
He will be remembered for his earlier work: Solo Faces, A Sport and a Pastime, and Light Years (the one with the perfect sentences and an almost Japanese sense of sweet melancholy), and for his last, All That Is (now THAT is an ambitious title!), which is probably the best novel about the post WWII New York writing and publishing world– not a small thing in those years. But all of his writing is worth reading…
As promised. These have generated a lot of email (personal, off blog, though I would encourage them here) enough that I might start looking for such interviews. I will put some thoughts in reaction below (above?), probably tomorrow…
OK, in-stream commentary to friends edited only for a minimum of sense and coherence:
“Living in the west, natives, newcomers, “Stickers”. He conspicuously left out New Mexico, often an exception to easy rules. Given the ancient ethnes here– well, just OLD for Navajos and Apaches, who just beat the Spanish- the old populations here, which I think still are more than half of our population– any newcomer/ Anglo (includes, specifically, Italian here in Magdalena) has a chance at acceptance if he is what Stegner called a “sticker”. Oldest ranch here is the Italian one, Sis Olney’s (Pound ranch), and her great grandfather Joe Gianera came from the Swiss border about 18 miles from my gparents in 1859! John Davila considers his Davila ancestors parvenus becauise they married “UP into the Guttierez family” in 1820! Whereas the Guttierezes “… came up the river with Onate and took the place BACK!” after the Pueblo revolt. Gotta love that back… but it also means our church (big parish, San Miguel, Socorro) has a not always friendly rivalry going with Santa Fe as to who has the oldest church. Ours has the oldest wall, but had to incorporate it into a new one after the rebellion, because the Indians burned the old one…
“But despite (because of?), I surely am considered an old timer in this town, with pics, mostly hunting ones, on the bar wall, not because I am “famous” but because I live here and have hung out there for three incarnations of the bar and a couple of generations of humans. As I said to my (75 year old!) friend Lawrence Aragon last year when he lamented the dearth of old- timers: WE, los borrachos perdidos– the surviving ones anyway– are the old timers!
“So, Stegner’s “Stickers”. A good concept- though are we ones entirely by choice, or does economics play a part? The Stickers are often poor enough they might not do as well in richer placers, though McGuane and some others are exceptions. I wonder that any distance he feels from his neighbors might be because he is wealthy rather than an incomer– it puts up barriers. Certainly he has a good rep as a man who knows horses, all the way down here.
(Jackson and Eli both were born in Santa Fe, and they can make a case for Eli being a 4th Gen Gringo SANTA FEAN, not just NMexican– pretty rare and cool…)
“With my crappy typing these days this feels like a dissertation, but a few more thoughts. Stegner fellowships at Stanford: did he like ANYBODY? McGuane, Robert Stone, Kesey, Shetzline– all were told they were lazy, beatniks, hippies, drug addicts- being selected seems to have meant success of sorts, but not from him. Back in MT it was as bad– Bud Guthrie AFAIK disliked without exception every incomer, and once told someone I know that anyone who moved there and bought a horse or rodeo’d was a poseur and a phony and he didn’t have to read them. Harsh, and ridiculous…
“McGuane’s lament for a more playful and less minimalist fiction rang true to me- his old stuff had more sheer FUN in it, prosodically anyway. I blame the influence– baneful influence, however he is regarded, of Raymond Carver. Luckily the South has somewhat escaped this– read Barry Hannah, much mentioned, and Brad Watson , two good examples. (Both Tom and Brad have written affectionate memories of THAT wild man). And then there are crazy Catholic memoirists and poets like Mary Karr..
“Tom gave a shout- out to not just Helen but Helen’s friend Olivia Laing and her great book on drunkenness in writers, The Trip to Echo Spring. What can I say- that it is an ENJOYABLE book on drunkenness, celebrating the writers if not their excesses; that it is utterly free of cant or twelve step religion; that it is a road book, by a naturalist, about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Carver, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, and John Cheever, that got me reading at least one (Cheever) again? That I once got an email from her in New Hampshire with an attached photo of my Good Guns Again, Blogger ” Doctor Hypercube’s” Arrieta, and the remains of bacon and eggs on the table? Read her!
“Last: I enjoy his short stories but if he is really working on a novel about his family I am excited, hope it is BIG, and also hope it will go back to the “Irish Riviera”, South Shore of Boston all the way around to Providence, where his roots (always acknowledged) are. Of course he has told me to do the same, just from bits in my pigeon book…
“I wish he would write more about bird dogs and guns and horses, at least as much as fish. (did you see him call to Nick Lyons in the audience?)”