Montana State University

Friendship between writers Brautigan and Keeler celebrated in new book

March 4, 2004 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Greg Keeler. Photo by Stephen Hunts, MSU News Service.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - In the late 1970s when interest rates were high and population low in the sleepy Bozeman-Livingston area, writer Richard Brautigan first crossed paths with Greg Keeler, a young English professor scrapping for tenure at Montana State University.

Their first meeting was inauspicious. Brautigan had bought a house close to celebrity friends in the Paradise Valley. Keeler and two MSU students brandishing a bottle of Almaden Chablis went there to convince Brautigan to speak at MSU. During the evening, Brautigan threw his cat at Keeler's face, cooked spaghetti for the students and finagled a $4,000 fee for a week's residency at MSU. The students were stunned and Keeler shocked. It was the beginning of a great friendship.

That friendship, which lasted until Brautigan's suicide in 1984, is detailed in Keeler's new book, "Waltzing With the Captain," recently published by Limberlost Press. Keeler will read from the book at Bozeman's Country Bookshelf at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 9. It is a funny, shocking, tender and honest book written by Brautigan's loyal friend, confidante, chauffeur and fellow creative. Keeler is Brautigan's Boswell, detailing the writer's humanity, his greatness and his mental decline.

"I'm just hoping to give another perspective, and maybe even encourage others who knew Richard to write down their own memories of the man," Keeler writes in the introduction. "Now that I'm through with my own little part, I'm going to start reading what others have to say and try to get a more complete picture of the leviathan that posed as the funny, disturbing, cruel, lovable and, especially, vulnerable man who rode in the car with me."

The unflinching look at Brautigan gives the book its grit and its charm. Its genesis came when a Rolling Stone reporter called Keeler shortly after Brautigan's death and asked for a few stories. The reporter ignored Keeler's piece, and Keeler said he gave up writing about Brautigan for about seven years, when he wrote another short piece for the magazine Rolling Stock, published by Brautigan's friends, Jenny Dorn and the late poet Ed Dorn.

Keeler later published a few pieces about Brautigan on the Troutball website, a site developed by David Behr, a former Bozeman resident. Behr posts Keeler's "songs, paintings, cartoons, poetry and inanities." Another Keeler friend, Rick Ardinger at Limberlost Press, saw the stories on Troutball and asked Keeler if he could write a book. Keeler then wrote the final 20 chapters.

Keeler details a dichotomous man who was kind and cruel, pompous and insecure, funny and grim.

"Part of the reason for that is he had such a bleak, desolate childhood and experienced such rejection that he had to manufacture this great writer persona," said Keeler, sitting in his MSU office surrounded by his paintings of favorite fishing spots as well as a jar of hot-pink mallow fishing bait "He'd switch back and forth (from personas.) I liked the persona that was funny, charming and a good friend."

Both tall, blonde, casual, witty men of letters, Brautigan and Keeler were fond of fishing, as one would expect of the author of "Trout Fishing in America. They also shared literary discussions and long hours of banter over tumblers of Brautigan's favorite George Dickel whiskey.

"(Brautigan) loved words and he would say them over and over again," Keeler said. "He really liked the words beer, bowling and beef."

Keeler frequently lets Brautigan speak for himself.

"Dear Greggie," Brautigan writes from Tokyo in one of the many "grim and humorous" letters published in the book. "Well, here we are: meeting on a piece of paper that has traveled across the Pacific Ocean to reach the hands fish dread in Montana. It is a quiet morning here in Tokyo. I had some ham and eggs for breakfast, coffee. This afternoon I'll go to a little caf and do some writing.

Maybe I'll watch some TV tonight." "...and then yawn and yawn and yawn again and then ZZZZ."

Keeler admits that it took a lot of energy to keep up with the Captain," as he called Brautigan. "I started calling Richard the Captain after he came back from a reading at Notre Dame wearing a military cap," he writes. "To me he was several Captains: Captain Colossal, Captain Belly-Buster, Captain Darkness, Captain Clumsy, Captain Random, and Captain Death...."

"Richard's suicide was about as random and contradictory as his other behavior," Keeler writes. "He had always insisted he would never take his own life." And when Brad Donovan of Bozeman, another of Brautigan's friends told him "Richard had bought the farm," Keeler writes that he wondered why, with all his debts, Brautigan had bought a farm.

"When he died, part of me went, 'Whew' and another part of me was totally torn up by it. A lot of his friends were like that "

In the 20 years since Brautigan died, Keeler has built up his own reputation. He's published seven books of poetry, recorded 14 CDs, written music for several plays and musicals - his next is "Neon Dream" co-written with Greg Owens--- and was awarded the Governor's Award in the Humanities in 2001 by the Montana Committee for the Humanities in 2001. And still, he admits to feeling a void from the absence of his colorful friend.

"It was a friendship that had its ups and downs and I didn't know how much I'd miss him," Keeler said. "I think he had that effect on a lot of people."

Contact: Greg Keeler (406) 994-5188