Lars Eighner, who vividly recounted his experiences of homelessness in “Travels With Lizbeth,” a book widely considered one of the best memoirs of decades, died Dec. 23 in Austin, Texas. He was 73 years old.
Dori Weintraub, vice president of publicity at St. Martin’s Press, which published “Travels With Lizbeth” in 1993, said St. Martin’s only recently learned of the death. No other details were provided. Mr. Eightner had been somewhat reclusive for the past few years.
Mr. Eighner (pronounced EYE-ner) worked as an attendant at what he called the “State Insane Asylum” in Austin and occasionally sold erotic stories to gay magazines when, as he said in his book, he quit his job ‘under threat of being fired’ and fell on hard times. ‘Travels with Lizbeth’ – Lizbeth was his dog – recounts the roughly three years Mr Eighner spent homeless , beginning in the late 1980s, hitchhiking and finding meals wherever he could, including other people’s garbage cans.
An essay he wrote while still homeless, “On Dumpster Diving”, found its way to the literary magazine The Threepenny Review, which published it in 1991.
“A number of people, not all of them the bohemian type, are ready to brag about having found this or that piece in the trash,” Mr. Eighner wrote. “But eating out of dumpsters is what separates the dilettanti from the professionals. Eating safely from dumpsters involves three principles: using the senses and common sense to assess the condition of found materials, knowing the dumpsters in a given area and checking them regularly, and always seeking to answer the question “Why was it thrown away? » ”
The essay, which has often been anthologized, garnered considerable attention and led to the publication of “Travels With Lizbeth”. Mr Eighner wrote the book in spurts, often working on a portable typewriter in a gay bar. Later, with the help of an editor, he cleaned up his unwieldy original manuscript.
The book attracted attention, including on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.
“This book takes us to the depths of that other country that lies all around us in the streets,” wrote Jonathan Raban in this review. “In lavish and patient detail it recreates the grammar, point of view, and domestic economy of homeless life, and if there be any justice in the world, it should guarantee its author a roof over his head for the rest of his life.”
By the time the book was published, Mr Eighner did indeed have a roof over his head again, but by 1996 he had fallen back into homelessness for a time. When he died, he and his husband, Cliff Hexamer, were living on a shoestring, sometimes seeking help on GoFundMe.
And although a comic novel Mr Eighner wrote in the 1980s, ‘Pawn to Queen Four’, and a collection of essays called ‘Gay Cosmos’ were published in 1995, his literary output has dried up.
“I knew from the start that the book was sui generis,” Mr. Eighner wrote in an afterword to a 2013 edition of “Travels With Lizbeth,” “and I have no argument with those who prefer to call it a stroke of luck. Anyway, unlike someone who gets caught up in being the underdog flavor of the month, I knew this book couldn’t lead to a sequel or a series.
Laurence Vail Eighner was born on November 25, 1948 in Corpus Christi, Texas to Lawrence and Alice Elizabeth (Vail) Eighner. He grew up in Houston, graduated from high school there, then attended Rice University and the University of Texas. He told the Houston Chronicle in 1993 that a combination of migraine headaches and a falling out with his family over his sexual orientation kept him from finishing school.
In the 1970s, he worked at a crisis center for people with drug or emotional problems. In 1987, he was working at Austin State Hospital when, in his account, an argument with a supervisor caused him to quit, setting him on a path to homelessness.
He sought both public and private help, he writes in his book, but was turned away for one reason or another – including, he said, by the Roman Catholic Church.
“There I was made plain that having neglected to produce children whom I could not support, I was disqualified for any benefit,” he wrote, a line that typifies the ironic touch that pervades the delivered.
As he began to write about his experiences, Steven Saylor, an editor and novelist who had worked at a gay magazine that had published Mr. Eighner’s work, served as the conduit that got “On Dumpster Diving” published and d other fragments.
“When I set out to do this book, I had a 750-page manuscript that covered that time period,” Mr. Eighner told The Austin American-Statesman in 1993. “There was more than one book there- Once I knew what they wanted was the homeless book, all I had to do was pick the right parts.
Despite the book’s success, by 1998 Mr. Eighner was once again on the brink of homelessness. Some Austin-area writers participated and kept him off the streets.
“Life isn’t stable enough yet for me to feel comfortable about such an important undertaking as writing a novel,” he told The Times at the time. “It’s always about nickels and dimes for macaroni and cheese.”
In “Travels with Lizbeth” he wrote about an important figure in his life whom he called Clint. It was Cliff Hexamer, whom Mr Eighner married in 2015, taking Hexamer as his legal name. Mr. Hexamer survives him.
In 2019, a book review panel for The Times named “Travels With Lizbeth” one of the 50 best memoirs of the past 50 years.
The Times spoke to Mr Eighner in 1999 about the differences between being homeless and having housing, and his state of mind.
“I’m pretty much constantly in dread of going back to the streets,” he said. “It’s like being on a glass staircase. No matter how high I go, when I look down, I see all the way down.