For a committed sensualist and prototypical hippie, a man who wore floppy hats, granny glasses, love beads and a droopy mustache that made him look like General Custer at an acid test, Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) had a potent work ethic.

He wrote nearly every morning, regardless of keening hangovers. He spent the rest of the day, William Hjortsberg notes in “Jubilee Hitchhiker,” his sprawling and definitive new biography of this most offbeat of American writers, “in pursuit of happiness.” Happiness for Brautigan usually meant, to borrow the title of an undervalued W. M. Spackman novel, an armful of warm girl. In San Francisco, where he mostly lived, and elsewhere, he had groupies and would hit on “anything that wasn’t nailed down,” one friend commented. He put some of his favorite bohemian cuties on the front of his books. “Richard’s sexual archive,” another friend said, “is reflected on his book covers.” Happiness meant seeing plenty of movies. Once he began making money, in the early 1970s, it also meant good food (oysters, pork buns, the most expensive lobsters at The Palm steakhouse) and guns, which, when drunk, he would frequently discharge indoors. Brautigan and the film director Sam Peckinpah, a friend, once opened fire with a .357 Magnum and a .38 Colt at an alley cat through an open hotel room window.

Brautigan’s signal pleasure, though, from the time he was a young boy, growing up poor in a broken family in Tacoma, Wash., until the end of his life, was trout fishing. It was an obsession that fed his first and probably best novel, “Trout Fishing in America,” written in 1961 but not issued by a major publishing house until 1969.

Generations of anglers have picked up “Trout Fishing in America” based on its title alone, expecting a how-to volume. What they get instead is akin to a gentle tab of LSD: an eccentric and slyly profound novel, seemingly narrated by the ghost of trout fishing past and filled with surreal post-“Walden” visions like a dismembered trout stream for sale at a junkyard.

Brautigan wrote his best novels — “Trout Fishing in America,” “A Confederate General From Big Sur” (1964), “In Watermelon Sugar” (1968) and “The Abortion” (1971) — and books of poetry, notably “The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster” (1968) before fame swamped him in the early ’70s, when he was in his mid-to-late 30s.

He got rich suddenly and enjoyed himself vastly. His writing got woolier and worse, however, and the critics turned on him. He spent most of the money. His looks began to go. (One of his best-known poems is titled “My Nose Is Growing Old.”) Neurotic and increasingly in debt, he committed suicide with a handgun in 1984, at 49.

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