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Cowboy’s Quill: William “Gatz” Hjortsberg: Storyteller



By Doug Hare EBS Staff

On April 22, Montana lost one of its best writers to pancreatic cancer. William Hjortsberg, who everyone called “Gatz” because of his early fondness for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, was working on a sequel to his occult, detective novel “Fallen Angel” right up until the very end of his life. He was 76. Any publisher would be lucky to get their hands on his final work.

“Gatz” grew up in Manhattan, New York, went to college at Dartmouth, and met a young Tom McGuane at the Yale School for Drama. Both McGuane and Hjortsberg spent two years at Stanford on Stegner Fellowships. After a trip out to fish the Yellowstone River with McGuane, Gatz moved to southwest Montana in 1971, eventually buying a ranch near McLeod where he raised pigs and gardened.

In the 1970s, Livingston and Paradise Valley enjoyed an artistic renaissance. Writers Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Tim Cahill, Richard Brautigan, the painter Russell Chatham, actors Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Jeff Bridges, and musician Jimmy Buffett are just a few of the artistically inclined souls who became known as the “Montana Gang.” If you want to learn more about these hard-drinking, gun-toting dreamers, look no further than Hjortsberg’s “Jubiliee Hitchhiker,” which chronicles the bohemian life and times of poet Richard Brautigan.

Much of Hjortzberg’s fiction puts on display his razor-sharp wit. His first published book “Alp” is a darkly comical tale reminiscent of Johnathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” featuring Swiss mountain climbing, dwarves, nuns, and cannibalism.

Perhaps Hjortzberg’s talent for storytelling is most evident in his science fiction writing. His dystopian “Gray Matters” features brains-in-vats in a story that might as well be the basis for “The Matrix” trilogy. His “Toro, Toro, Toro” features his impeccable sense of comedic timing and irony in a disturbing tale about Spanish bullfighters.

His friends remember the man as a gentle soul, but also a fearless one. Whether he was riding a bull on assignment for Sports Illustrated or blending genres into truly bizarre, mind-boggling works of fiction, his audacity produced a truly one-of-a-kind writer. Hopefully, there will be other good writers to come out of Livingston, but there is no replacing Gatz.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard Universities.

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