If you've never met Arthur Dent, engaged the Improbability Drive or sipped a pan-galactic gargle blaster, stop reading now: this article may leave you as cold as a Vogon's heart. If, however, you're among the millions of fans of Douglas Adams, who died two years ago at 49, you can rejoice at the publication of the first major biography of the man who must be Britain's most popular cult author since Tolkien.
Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy began life as a BBC radio series 25 years ago this month, and went on to sell millions of copies as a novel. H2G2, as the entire opus is now known, grew into a multibook series, a stage play, a TV adaptation, a video game, comic books, a website and even a towel (a key H2G2,plot item). Adams fan clubs flourish, and Disney has reportedly dusted off plans for a movie based on Arthur Dent's interstellar wanderings.
But as M.J. Simpson notes in his minutely detailed Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams (Hodder & Stoughton; 393 pages), the man commonly credited with inventing the genre of humorous science fiction was a tragic figure with a chaotic personal life and a pan-galactic case of writer's block. "I love deadlines," Adams once said. "I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
Adams learned to avoid reality around age 5, when his parents divorced. Tall, shy and unathletic, he longed to be John Cleese, star of the Monty Python troupe. Adams had the height (hitting his full 1.91 m as a teen) and a taste for clowning. So when he went off to Cambridge he gravitated, as his hero had a dozen years earlier, to the university's famed Footlights drama society. Improbably, he ran into Cleese in a London Underground station, introduced himself and soon was writing for the Python crew. That led to assignments on the Dr. Who sci-fi TV drama and a chance to write an original BBC radio series.
The result, Hitchhiker, was a sensation, and before long Adams was amassing fast cars, dangerous women and the world's largest collection of left-handed guitars. He played one onstage with Pink Floyd, hobnobbed with various Beatles and had Procul Harum play parties in his North London home anything to avoid writing. "I'm a man of obsessive enthusiasms," he said. "Great bursts of energy followed by two days in bed." Amid a scandalous affair with married novelist Sally Emerson, he was twice stopped for DWK (driving while kissing). In 1991 he married Jane Belson, a level-headed British barrister, but retained one obsession: making Hitchhiker into a movie. Simpson chronicles that campaign, which culminated in the writer's 1999 move to California to keep up the pressure on Disney and its designated director Jay Roach (Austin Powers). To relieve his frustration over the stalled project, he took to exercising obsessively. Days after his doctor diagnosed an irregular heart rate, he died of coronary failure at his Santa Barbara gym. "If anything contributed to his death," writes Simpson, "it was the realization that he might ultimately lose his 20-year battle with Hollywood."
Adams left behind an inventive body of fiction, including tall tales about his own life. Simpson corrects some of these myths that he got the idea for Hitchhiker, for instance, lying drunk under the stars in Innsbrück while thumbing around Europe in 1971; it actually came during a 1973 trip to Greece. Who cares? Not his army of readers. To them, Douglas Adams is now free from the pressures of editors, agents and accountants (one of whom stole $500,000 from him before committing suicide), free from the burden of deadlines, free to roam the galaxy wit unsheathed, pan-galactic gargle blaster at his elbow.