Remembering Hob Broun

Heywood Orren (or ‘Hob’) Broun published three books in his brief lifetime – Odditorium (1983), Inner Tube (1985) and Cardinal Numbers (1988) – none of which are well known today. But Broun’s intense, eccentric fictions ought to be more than a mere footnote to literary history. In this, the first of a semi-regular series on neglected writers, Egress celebrates Broun’s life and work. Kevin McMahon reflects on his close friendship with the author, while Sam Lipsyte describes his formative encounter with Broun’s fiction. Egress is also pleased to present a selection of pages from Broun’s personal journal – a vivid and often hilarious record of a brilliant mind at play.

 

Impressions of Hob

Kevin McMahon

I first met Hob in September 1968. We were both entering freshmen newly arrived at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Checking out the campus on the first day, I found my way to the Commons, the student union, which contained a game room with professional quality pool tables. The usual dubious characters were hanging around, including Hob, who on this occasion was wearing a well-creased leather jacket, a mesh t-shirt of the kind favored by street hustlers, blue jeans faded and ripped at the knee, and alligator wing tips. Around his neck was a miniature ivory skull on a leather thong. He was a hawk-nosed, skinny little guy with lank, scraggly long hair, spidery and angular, his movements precise as he worked the table sinking one ball after another. His hands were noticeably fine – a musician’s hands, with long tapering fingers, on which he wore a couple of rather gaudy Mafioso-quality rings. I remember thinking he couldn’t possibly be a student – he looked like an aging juvenile delinquent working hard at becoming a career criminal. I accepted the challenge of a game. Hob of course wanted to make it interesting, but being short of cash it was proposed that we play for record albums, and in this way got to talking music, likes, dislikes, hatreds and objects of contempt, the kind of antler rubbing by which young guys got acquainted in those days. I gathered that my first impression of Hob was wrong. He was a student here, too, also from back east – a native Manhattanite. I’d attended boarding school in New England, Hob the Dalton School in New York, and it turned out we knew some of the same people through these connections. It quickly became evident that, to an unusual degree even for the type of highly opinionated, one-upping prep school boys I was used to, Hob was not only emphatic about music, he was indifferent to nothing

After hustling me out of a slew of albums, Hob invited me over to his dorm. Somehow, he’d brought two big steamer trunks packed solid with LPs with him from New York. They must have weighed a ton apiece. An older couple were already in the room, whom Hob introduced as ‘Woodie and Jane’. These were his parents. I recognized Woodie right away as Heywood Hale Broun, who was pretty well-known for his eccentric TV sports featurettes, which he delivered on-air wearing a crazy quilt sport jacket, eyes crinkled in wintry amusement over a Bowery saloonkeeper’s moustache. This is how I learned Hob’s last name, without having to ask. (His full name was Heywood Orren Broun, but I never heard anyone call him Heywood. I believe Orren was his maternal grandfather’s name.) Woodie was mixing gimlets in a cocktail shaker and serving them up in martini glasses. Hob’s mother Jane, a petite, well-preserved blonde, was perched on the desk with her legs neatly crossed. A former actress, she retained an air of the theatrical that on her was charming rather than affected. They were all very easy with each other, and it seemed to me that the Brouns were more like intimate friends than parents and child, three against the world.

Hob was well aware that he came from cultural aristocracy, and proud of it, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve. His grandfather was Heywood Broun, the newspaper columnist who was one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table, and his grandmother was Ruth Hale, famous in her day as a pioneering militant feminist, and also a charter member of the Algonquin. They were resolutely unconventional parents, and I think Woodie strove mightily to avoid repeating their mistakes, while keeping the basic bohemian ideal. In consequence, Hob didn’t have much to rebel against at home, and he seemed miraculously well-adjusted to me. 

Judging from photographs, I’d say that physically Hob took more after his grandmother’s side of the family. His eyes, especially, were very much like Ruth’s, and his hawk nose appears to be a distinctive Hale characteristic, although he had the Broun forehead. His lineage was mostly Scottish with some German, and of course Welsh on his mother’s side. Through her, Frank Lloyd Wright was a distant relation and Hob did resemble his famous cousin in size, artistic perfectionism and pugnacity. I once visited Wright’s Hollyhock House in East Hollywood with Hob, and he found it amusing that I had to stoop while he strolled right through the architect’s Wright-sized doorways and halls. We were Mutt and Jeff, he liked to say, after the tall and short hobo pals in the old comic strip. 

Hob and I were fast friends, and later on became roommates when we rented an off-campus apartment together in a crumbling stucco triplex next to the freight yards –uncoupled boxcars slamming into each other went on more or less every night. Our landlady was a querulous widow named Maude Butts, whose apartment was right across the hall, and who came to hate us in short order. Our only other neighbor was an older Ghanaian exchange student with a wife and child, whose answer to every problem was ‘I will get my two-two and shoot them!’ These types of characters were Hob’s primary object of study. From childhood, he never intended to be anything but a writer. His powers of observation were keen, and he was very penetrating about small differences. He didn’t tolerate pretentiousness and phoniness at all, and wasn’t shy about letting people know it. I was on the receiving end of his lash a couple of times myself.

In college, Hob wasn’t much interested in radical politics, and enjoyed mocking the New Left types on campus, such as one purportedly working class kid from Detroit who styled himself a ‘White Panther’ and had a small troop of impressionable coeds he would march around the quad in quasi-military formation. Hob named them the ‘Buttock Power’ brigade. He also had a kind of genial contempt for campus hippies whom he considered mostly fakes and saw mainly as useful for scoring weed. In general he avoided hard drugs. He preferred to keep his mind sharp. It was his instrument and he took care of it. If he identified with any kind of sociopolitical grouping at all it would have been the Beats, as an indigenous American literary movement. Reed was visited by a few counterculture heroes in our time there. Hob wasn’t excited about any of them. He wasn’t the type to be star-struck and preferred to form his own judgments.

In New York the Brouns owned an apartment on West 81st Street just off Central Park, which is where Hob grew up. It was cozy and old-fashioned, not over-large, of course un-air conditioned in summer and heated by ironwork radiators in winter, a typical pre-war Manhattan flat. They had a pair of lovable old dogs, mixed-breed collies named Daisy and Buttercup. The park in back of the Hayden Planetarium was across the street, and Hob would walk the dogs there so they could relieve themselves. Hob was a pretty heavy drinker in his teens and twenties, and we went on some epic pub crawls together in the city, but he gave it up around the time he turned thirty. I think he was worried it was interfering with his writing, or maybe he just got tired of it. At any rate, not long afterwards he told me that the mere smell of alcohol now made him sick. 

Hob dropped out of Reed at the end of sophomore year. He drew a high number in the draft lottery, and figured he’d wasted enough time in college. He didn’t need a bachelor’s degree to write. In the following years, we always kept in touch and on occasion he’d drop in while passing through. He seemed to be in more or less constant motion around the country, soaking up ‘the old, weird America’ that no longer exists. He drove a boxy piece of pre-owned seventies Detroit iron with a manual shift and no handbrake, and a roomy dashboard with a grid of small square spaces into which Hob inserted tiny model railroad type plastic figures of people, farm animals, a water tower, palm trees and the like, so he had a miniature landscape to gaze over while driving down the road. He liked small things, little pocket worlds like that. He was sensitive about his height, but he also enjoyed deprecating it himself rather than letting others get the jump on him. Sometimes he even shopped for clothes in the children’s section. In San Francisco I rented a room for a time in a Victorian shotgun flat. When Hob came to stay for a bit he moved into the hall closet, pushing the hanging coats aside to fit in a cot for himself, and setting his typewriter on a funky end table. This was the treasured old-school manual he carried everywhere in his travels. Hob never learned to touch-type, he jack-hammered the keys with his two index fingers, a menthol cigarette, Newport or Kool, clenched between his teeth. And there he remained for a couple of weeks, working on his novel with that singleness of purpose that I always envied. His face took on an expression of focused, almost angry intensity when engaged in serious pursuits - writing or gambling, shooting pool, ice skating, chopping garlic and onions. He was highly competitive and hated to lose. This went for his writing, too. He measured himself against other authors past and present. He was perversely proud of his stack of rejection slips from The New Yorker, but it rankled him at the same time. He felt he rightly belonged in that company, but like Groucho simultaneously considered it beneath him to apply to a club that would take him as a member. 

I can’t bear to write too much about the end of Hob’s story. In his early thirties he was a published author with a promising future ahead, in full control of his instrument, and he’d finally found the love of his life, and this time she loved him back. Then he was stricken with paralysis, the result of an operation to remove a tumor wrapped around his spinal column. He woke up from it in a wheelchair, unable to move anything below the top of his shoulders, his every breath provided by a tracheostomy tube connected to a ventilator. I know that in those first days and weeks he would have preferred to die on the table, but over time sheer grit and strength of character saw him through. I also think his pride was a factor – he refused to be an object of pity to anyone. Thanks to a then-primitive computer keyboard operable by a breath-controlled device, he was able to keep writing, and did. I don’t think he would have made it otherwise, through the additional time he was granted before death took him suddenly in the middle of the night by acute cardio-respiratory failure, caused by the regrowth of that tumor. It was close to Christmas, 1987. He was thirty-seven years old.

The Brouns kept a country house just outside of Woodstock upstate, a comfortable, rambling, lived-in cottage stuffed with books and souvenirs from Woodie’s travels and career, where they felt most at home and spent the summers and winter holidays. The picture window in the dining room looked out on a great swath of meadow and the Catskills beyond. Across the road they had another tract of woods, surrounding a large pond with a little island in the center, good for swimming in summer and ice skating in the winter months. Hob was an avid skater, a regular Hans Brinker, and would spend hours at it, hands behind his back and bent at the waist, cutting arcs across the knobbly surface of his frozen pond, round and round as the sun went down. That’s the image of him I’m keeping.

 

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'Impressions of Hob' was originally published in Egress #1, alongside an essay by Sam Lipsyte and an extensive range of previously unpublished pages from Hob Broun's journal.

 

Kevin McMahon is a motion picture story analyst and father of two.