"Fiction was just something I could do," Hob Broun said a while back, "like being good at golf." He was, of course, understating the case. Or he was very good at golf.
Where Heywood Orren (Hob) Broun was headed with his considerable talent no one will ever know, though a collection of short stories, "Cardinal Numbers," due from Knopf in spring, should give a fair approximation. His first two novels--"Odditorium" (Harper & Row, 1983) and "Inner Tube" (Knopf, 1985) crackled with literary promise. "He was one of the best writers of his generation," says his agent and longtime friend, Ivy Fischer Stone. "He had a great mind, a piercing wit, and an uncanny ability to capture in writing people of this generation, a rare combination of gifts. I can't tell you what a high it was to read his first manuscript and know what had come across my desk."
Hob Broun died of natural causes on Dec. 15, 1987, while napping at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 37.
As the result of a surgical procedure gone awry--the surgeon had been prepared to remove a cyst but found instead a large tumor encircing his spine--Hob had lived his last four years a quadriplegic with the sucking sound of an ever present respirator assuring him he was breathing, something he could no longer do for himself. Ivy Stone recalls that the day before the surgery, Hob confided that the one thing he could not live with would be coming out of surgery blind. When he fully realized what had become of him--"They snipped every last God-damn wire," is the way he put it, "including the one for sleep"--he sank into a deep depression.
He could have stayed there. Or he could have become psychotic or impossibly manipulative. He could have lived in a drugged stupor. But Hob came back to the world, came back to writing, finishing "Inner Tube," though swearing he would never write another book. He maintained an extensive correspondence with his friends, gradually worked on short stories, and made peace with his art and craft. When he died, he was completing a third book, set in Surinam in two time periods, a book he had researched entirely from his chair. And he was talking about other books.
The seed catalogues had started to arrive, and Hob ruminated about the next kitchen garden, an activity he directed from his elaborate wheelchair. He didn't count on the future, but he had come to grips with it, and had stopped dismissing it out of hand. "I don't know if it is a grace or a crime," Hob said, "but we large brains will adapt to anything, no matter how evil or horrible the situation."
"That first year," recalls his friend and former roommate, Kevin McMahon, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, "everyone was on tenterhooks with Hob, as he was with everyone who visited. He was very bitter, but he retained his mordant humor. I can recall when his computer had just been installed, allowing him to write by puffing into a tube when the letter appeared on the screen. His mother was enthusiastic about the potential of the machine and insisted that Hob demonstrate how it worked. Much to my surprise, he did. We stood there and watched the letters appear on the screen, one by one: 'To be or not to be.' I thought at that moment Hob would survive."
Hob learned to accommodate this new way of writing, but it was a process he didn't much like. "If I had hands," Hob had said in the first years of adjustment, "that machine would have been in pieces long ago." Taped to the wall was a picture of a 1948 Remington typewriter, his writing machine of choice, the front of it plastered with Chinese fortunes.
He lived, ultimately, two lives in two worlds, dying two deaths. He was a small, restless man who crossed the country 23 times, once in 53 hours in winter in a Triumph Spitfire. And then he was a physically withered man, his sharp features tightened a notch, his thin hair grayer than it should have been, who relived his life in his mind, flipping through the slide file again and again. "I spend a lot of time lying in that bed thinking," Hob said. "When I'm not thinking about the past, I'm thinking about the writing at hand. There isn't any future. There's just the next day. That's all."
His friends recall his humor and his telling perceptiveness. "Hob easily skewered the ersatz," one friend wrote. "He never confused sentimentality with real sentiment." He loathed phoniness in people and pierced it whenever he encountered it. "Hob was intolerant of small mindedness," says Sam Chapin, a Boston engineer who grew up with Hob. "He wanted his friends to have opinions, for as long as I knew him, and would always probe and push. He wouldn't let his friends just shrug their shoulders. He forced them to think." Tolerance, compassion, driving enthusiasm, patience, loyalty: These are words friends often dredge up when trying to add muscle to the bones of their memories of Hob Broun. Courage and determination certainly belong on the list.
Broun was determined to be a writer, his oldest friends say, from the time he was a child. It wasn't something he talked about. It was simply understood. "He had a phenomenal dedication to writing from the moment I knew him," recalls McMahon. "Even at 19, no matter what he was doing or what his condition might be, Hob would take himself off to his typewriter and write for three hours. Every day. He worked at writing more than anyone else I've ever seen, and all the labor was finally beginning to show. Hob was finally nailing down his subject."
Writing, it can be said, was in Broun's blood. His grandfather, Heywood Broun, was both journalist and novelist, and sat at the Algonquin Round Table among his peers. Hob's father, Heywood Hale Broun, has been an actor and writer and lecturer as well as an essayist for CBS TV. Sam Chapin says that Hob openly emulated his father, who has an inordinate enthusiasm for life and a splendid ability to spin a tale. His mother, Jane Lloyd-Jones Broun, had a career as a Broadway actress. "Right out of the cradle," McMahon says, "Hob was exposed to a creative world of theater, music, art, and books, lots of books. In all the years I knew Hob, no matter how obscure the writer or the school of writing, I could never introduce him to something he hadn't already read. And I worked at it. He was always coming up with entire genres I had never heard of."
His writing at times is seamless, the writer disappearing, any sense of actual effort vanishing from the page. But his effort was considerable. Even in a diminished capacity, waiting for the respirator to catch up, finding the strength to push out his words, Broun could talk the way most writers wish they could write ("There's a jay around here with feathers like an old hotel carpet," he remarked in his office, watching a bird at the window feeder, "a very unsavory character"). But that didn't make his writing easy. He constantly re-worked material, both at the computer and lying awake in bed, running it through his head. "Writing," he said, "is groping blind all the way, feeling my way down a hall. One idea will click another, but I don't know how it will end up. Control, of course, is very important. I used to write with a certain guilt fuel. If I didn't do it, I'd feel bad. It's different now. Now it's the focus of what I'm surviving for."
He was a rare bird, Hob Broun, even among American writers. "I have been in touch with writers for almost 30 years," Knopf editor Gordon Lish said. "In the course of that time, none has shown me the courage exhibited by Hob Broun, whose example and bravery shall not perish."
His writing will be judged by others farther down the line, the literary promise he embodied placed in perspective. At that time, his words will be judged simply for what they are, for how they line up on the page, not for who put them there, or how. Hob would have liked it that way.