Lars Eighner, Who Wrote Eloquently of Being Homeless, Dies at 73
Lars Eighner, who vividly recounted his experiences with being homeless in “Travels With Lizbeth,” a book widely regarded as one of the finest memoirs of recent decades, died on Dec. 23 in Austin, Texas. He was 73.
Dori Weintraub, vice president of publicity at St. Martin’s Press, which published “Travels With Lizbeth” in 1993, said St. Martin’s had learned of the death only recently. No other details were provided. Mr. Eighner had been somewhat reclusive in recent years.
Mr. Eighner (pronounced EYE-ner) had been working as an attendant at what he called “the state lunatic asylum” in Austin and occasionally selling erotic stories to gay magazines when, as he put it in his book, he resigned 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 about and finding meals where he could, including in other people’s garbage.
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.
“Quite a number of people, not all of them the bohemian type, are willing to brag that they found this or that piece in the trash,” Mr. Eighner wrote. “But eating from Dumpsters is the thing that separates the dilettanti from the professionals. Eating safely from the Dumpsters involves three principles: using the senses and common sense to evaluate the condition of the found materials, knowing the Dumpsters of a given area and checking them regularly, and seeking always to answer the question ‘Why was this discarded?’”
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 fits and starts, often working on a portable typewriter at a gay bar. Later, with an editor’s help, he pared down his original unwieldy manuscript.
The book drew wide notice, including on the cover of The New York Times Book Review.
“This book takes us into the profound depths of that other country that lies all around us on the streets,” Jonathan Raban wrote in that review. “In lavish, patient detail, it recreates the grammar, point of view and domestic economy of the unhoused life, and if there’s any justice in the world it should guarantee its author a roof over his head for the rest of his days.”
By the time the book was published, Mr. Eighner did indeed have a roof over his head again, but by 1996 he had lapsed back into homelessness for a time. At his death he and his husband, Cliff Hexamer, lived on a shoestring, sometimes seeking help on GoFundMe.
And although a comic novel Mr. Eighner wrote in the 1980s, “Pawn to Queen Four,” and an essay collection called “Gay Cosmos” were published in 1995, his literary output dried up.
“I knew from the beginning 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 fluke. At any rate, unlike someone who gets caught up in being the outsider flavor of the month, I knew this book could not lead to a sequel or a series.”
Laurence Vail Eighner was born on Nov. 25, 1948, in Corpus Christi, Texas, to Lawrence and Alice Elizabeth (Vail) Eighner. He grew up in Houston, graduating from high school there and then studying at 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 had prevented him from finishing his degree.
In the 1970s he worked at a crisis center for people with drug or emotional problems. In 1987 he was working at the Austin State Hospital when, in his telling, a dispute with a supervisor led him to quit, starting him on the path to homelessness.
He sought both public and private aid, he wrote in his book, but was turned away for one reason or another — including, he said, by the Roman Catholic Church.
“There I was told plainly that having neglected to produce children I could not support, I was disqualified for any benefit,” he wrote, a line that typifies the wry touch that permeates the book.
As he began writing 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” and other fragments published.
“When I got down to doing this book, I had a 750-page manuscript that covered this time frame,” Mr. Eighner told The Austin American-Statesman in 1993. “There was more than one book there. Once I knew that what they wanted was the homeless book, all I had to do was pick the good parts.”
Despite that book’s success, by 1998 Mr. Eighner was on the verge of homelessness again. Some writers in the Austin area pitched in and kept him off the streets.
“Life is still not quite stable enough for me to feel comfortable for such a major undertaking as to write a novel,” he told The Times back then. “It is still a matter of nickels and dimes for macaroni and cheese.”
In “Travels With Lizbeth,” he wrote of an important figure in his life he called Clint. That was Cliff Hexamer, whom Mr. Eighner married in 2015, taking Hexamer as his legal name. Mr. Hexamer survives him.
In 2019, a panel of book critics for The Times named “Travels With Lizbeth” one of the 50 best memoirs of the last 50 years.
The Times talked with Mr. Eighner in 1999 about the differences between being homeless and having a home, and about his state of mind.
“I’m pretty much constantly in terror of going back on the streets,” he said. “It’s like being on a glass staircase. No matter how far up I get, when I look down, I see all the way to the bottom.”