The New York City-born Montana novelist who gave us private investigator Harry Angel (in 1978’s Falling Angel), the lively detective pairing of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini (in 1994’s Nevermore), and a drug-fueled nightmare excursion through 1960s Mexico (in 2015’s Mañana) passed away this last Saturday night of pancreatic cancer. Author William Hjortsberg, who was known to friends simply as “Gatz,” was 76 years old.
“Livingston has lost another of its literary legends,” The Livingston Enterprise—Hjortsberg’s Montana hometown newspaper—reported on Monday afternoon, adding: “Hjortsberg was a central character in the area’s literary scene since the 1970s, which included other renowned authors Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison and Richard Brautigan, and celebrities, including Jimmy Buffett.”
McGuane, who moved to Big Sky Country in the 1970s, not long before Hjortsberg, is quoted in the Enterprise as saying of his friend:
“I met Gatz in our first graduate school year [1963, at Yale Drama School] and we became friends because we were the only people there who fished. Gatz had gone to Dartmouth on such meager funds that he worked the night shift in a pizza place and went to school in the day. Those limited available hours trained in him an almost photographic memory, grasping material at a glance, allowing him a full night’s sleep while I crammed for the same exams and never did as well.In addition to his three books mentioned previously, Hjortsberg penned novels such as Alp (1969) and Gray Matters (1971), and a 2012 biography of fellow wordsmith Richard Brautigan titled Jubilee Hitchhiker. A full bibliography is available at his Web site. Hjortsberg also wrote several screenplays, including for the 1985, Ridley Scott-directed dark fantasy film Legend.
“Our love of writing was extreme and we kept up our discussion from then on. We were each [Wallace] Stegner Fellows at Stanford and started our writing careers at the same time. When I borrowed a house in Pray in the late Sixties, Gatz soon arrived and we’ve been here ever since. In the intervening years, we fished in Montana, the Catskills, the mountains of Spain, and the Caribbean.
“Gatz was at bottom such a gentle soul that it was surprising how fearless he was, delivering a speech, ocean diving, rock climbing, or riding a bull. Along the way he wrote wonderful books that are still being discovered. He lacked a passion for self-promotion and so many of the facts of his accomplishment still lie ahead while readers discover why writers like John Cheever and Stephen King thought so much of him. Very modestly, as was his habit, he leaves a great vacancy.”
At the time of his death, Hjortsberg is said to have been working on a sequel to Falling Angel, a yarn that was adapted into the 1987 Mickey Rourke/Robert DeNiro mystery-thriller film, Angel Heart.
(Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)