[21 February 2008]
When I first read Richard Brautigan’s 1967 novella Trout Fishing in America two decades ago, I thought I was opening an instructional book about trout fishing. Man, was I wrong. After reading Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Co., I was hooked on literary renegades from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and since one of my hipper relatives did not recommend Brautigan, I thought it only natural, in the spirit of rebelliousness, to read his most famous work.
I assumed Trout Fishing in America would increase my angling I.Q. and become one of those rare books that would place dozens more trout in my creel. Not quite. My success on rivers has little to do with Brautigan, but my appreciation for language and its quirky power has been wonderfully enriched because of him: with Trout Fishing in America, I caught a whale of a book.
Trout Fishing in America is one of those rare texts that defies explanation, and in so doing, aptly expresses the creative vision of one of America’s most eccentric authors. Richard Gary Brautigan was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1935. A child of the Pacific Northwest, Brautigan’s youth, like much of his life, is colored with exaggerations, surrealistic anecdotes, substance-induced reveries, and personal mythologies.
His parents split around the time Richard was born, and he had little contact with his biological father. During his early years, Brautigan lived in poverty above a candy factory with his mother, a long-time waitress, two sisters, and brother; at least two of his siblings share different biological fathers. They moved to a shack in Eugene, Oregon, and later, at the age of 20, after incarceration for throwing a rock through a police station window, Brautigan was admitted into the Oregon State Hospital where he received electroshock therapy and was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. Ironically, that hospital became the set for the film version of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Jack Nicholson.
By 1957, Brautigan abandoned his family and moved to San Francisco to join the city’s burgeoning literary and counterculture scene. His early writing consisted of poetry, and he was seen distributing poems on trolley cars and street corners. A diverse and prolific writer, his works, according to the Personal Background page of the Brautigan Bibliography and Archive Website, include “eleven novels, ten poetry collections, and two story collections, as well as five volumes of collected work, six nonfiction essays, and a record album of spoken voice recordings.”
He was married twice and had one child, Ianthe Elizabeth Brautigan. His mercurial literary career was decorated with applause and condemnation, prompting Brian Morton in The Times Higher Education Supplement to write, “The majority of critics mistook his economy of means and minimal style for slightness, his humour and playfulness for irresponsibility.”
As his aesthetic and monetary fortunes waned, so did his sanity. He developed an affinity for Japan (his second wife was Japanese), and prophetically, guns. In 1984, he was found dead after an apparent suicide in Bolinas, California, next to a .44 caliber and bottle of whiskey, weeks after the fatal shot. Brautigan was fascinated by obituaries, and his reveal portraits of a complex soul.
Brautigan’s style in Trout Fishing in America begins with observations reported in a conversational manner, guided by simple, declarative sentences. However, deception prevails, and those simple sentences populated by reoccurring characters quickly slide into hysterical, surrealistic fantasies narrated through episodic storylines.
Trout Fishing in America was written in 1961, making it Brautigan’s first and most lasting proclamation of his mischievous, experimental prose. He frequently juxtaposed discordant images to draw parallels between the competing worlds of the pastoral and urban: “the autumn carried along with it, like the roller coaster of a flesh-eating plant” or “A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket.” Neil Schmitz in Modern Fiction Studies wrote,
The jarring effect of the urban image affixed to the bucolic object describes not only the writer’s sense of his alienation in the woods, his intrusion, but also the mutilated condition of the place, a wilderness that is elsewhere presented as an outhouse with its door ripped open.
Brautigan’s minimalist prose wove hallucinations into social commentary, pastoral meditations into cultural satire, and journalistic reports about mundane existence into nihilistic, punkish sirens. He elegantly wove chaos into order, and eccentrically wove order into chaos. Although associated with the Beats, Brautigan distanced himself from them and their philosophies, claiming a different, more solitary niche on America’s literary landscape. He explored different genres including a detective, mystery, and Gothic Western novel. His madcap expressions scream for new perspectives about the purpose, relevance, and aesthetics of contemporary prose.
For example, the phrase “trout fishing in America” assumes various identities throughout the novella. Schmitz states,
Deprived of its organic predicate, streams, and its physical object, trout, it (the phrase trout fishing in America) becomes a concert, the object of an intensely motivated quest which alters completely the simplicity of its original meaning…it speaks like an idiom hardened into a concept…What it does understand is the fish that strikes and then eludes the writer’s snare.
The phrase is like that elusive trout that surfaces and then disappears. It serves as the name of a hotel; the text’s title and the text itself; the name of a character (letters are addressed to and signed by “Trout Fishing in America”); a sixth-grade prank (Brautigan and his buddies wrote the phrase on first graders’ sweaters and shirts); an adjective phrase describing another character, Shorty, along with parades (“they had a trout fishing in America peace parade”), an epitaph, and other nouns; a place (“I’ve come home from Trout Fishing in America”); and a concept or state of mind (“I went home to prepare for trout fishing in America”).
Indeed, Brautigan reminds us of the limitations and wonder words possess. The meaning and form of this simple phrase linguistically can serve multiple purposes, and this sense of possibility, which catapulted ‘60s social revolutions, is what Brautigan saw in “trout fishing in America”: a return to a more pastoral, innocent time when nature thrived, liberalism mattered, and life was simple. Schmitz writes,
So the phrase exists, communicating itself to the writer always in its two phases of signification, what it was and what it is, a single character speaking two ways at once. The writer responds by moving back and forth in his narrative, telling stories about actual trout fishing in America and anecdotes that involve the mythic concept of Trout Fishing in America, recognizing the distinction and yet aware that to tell one is to tell the other.
Reoccurring characters such as Shorty, Deanna Durbin, and “his woman,” along with reoccurring objects such as the classic German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, a mayonnaise jar, and the Benjamin Franklin statue in San Francisco’s Washington Square Park remind us of Brautigan’s nostalgic tendencies. His prose refuses to let go of certain ideas, and Brautigan’s struggle to let go helps us discover new meaning.
He also refuses to abandon the literary tradition Trout Fishing in America is built upon. Allusions to literary legends and other artists are sprinkled throughout, including Ernest Hemingway and Izaak Walton, whose relevance is obvious: they were, arguably, fishermen first and writers second. However, Brautigan is fishing for something larger with these allusions: Hemingway and his characters, like Walton himself and the granddaddy of all American nature writers, Henry David Thoreau, sought refuge in nature, and specifically fishing, because the sport possesses restorative powers that lead anglers to self-discovery. When those anglers are also writers, the potential for enlightenment and self-understanding is hauntingly powerful.
By stepping into the literary history of nature writing, Brautigan distanced himself from the nature-loving ‘60s, and by doing so, challenged the hippie myth of “peace, love, and nature” by rewriting his own myths and legends. Combine these allusions of life-affirming visionaries such as Walton, Thoreau, and Hemingway with his references to villainous historical figures such as Adolph Hitler and John Dillinger, and readers will recognize Trout Fishing in America as Brautigan’s odyssey, a quest for meaning in a world turned upside down by commercialization, revolution, war, peace, pollution, environmentalism, indifference, and activism, a world where the past, present, and future are constantly clashing, and contradictions dominate. If Trout Fishing in America represented this odyssey, trout fishing was his Holy Grail.
Given his adverse childhood, it should be no surprise that in Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan critiques much about American society and culture. Brad Hayden, while noting the many similarities between Walden and Trout Fishing in America in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, writes,
The trout stream is a central metaphor for the shrinking American wilderness and the social values which are associated with it. The narrator…seeks a pastoral life in nature but does not succeed; his search ends in frustration and disillusionment.
Homeless, poverty-stricken characters appear periodically in the novella, and Brautigan laments their plight when he writes,
Around five o’clock in the afternoon of my cover for Trout Fishing in America, people gather in the park across the street from the church and they are hungry. Its sandwich time for the poor…A friend of mine unwrapped his sandwich one afternoon and looked inside to find just a leaf of spinach. That was all. Was it Kafka who learned about America by reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin…Kafka who said, ‘I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic.’
Brautigan’s friend, “a member of a very large and poor German family,” is memorialized in the chapter “The Kool-Aid Wino”. Sadly, this friend suffers from a “rupture”. and the family is too poor to afford an operation, so the friend manages his pain through alcohol. Brautigan elegantly concludes his chapter with a stoic and heroic summary of his alcoholic friend’s existence: “He created his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.”
In “The Surgeon”, the narrator meets a doctor who criticizes socialized medicine, and reports that he has abandoned his practice to fish, hunt, and settle in the American West. After small talk, Brautigan’s narrator concludes, “he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.” The author’s disenchantment with corporate, middle-class America and the illusions it fosters bristles with contempt, while his empathy for the average man and lower classes shines.
Hayden explains, “Trout Fishing conveys its thematic message through…short episodes concerned with the materialistic wasting away of the American wilderness and the decay of personal morality.” The narrator’s fishing excursions are constantly corrupted – dead fish appear in dammed-up pools, an acquaintance kills a trout by jamming wine down its throat – and this corruption is a metaphor for America’s entropy.
In “Witness for Trout Fishing in America Peace”, after watching various peace demonstrations in San Francisco, the narrator writes, “America needs no other proof. The Red shadow of the Gandhian nonviolence Trojan horse has fallen across America, and San Francisco is its stable.” Although solutions to preventing this decay may have been obvious to Brautigan, they were not clear to others. In passages like these, it is easy to see how Trout Fishing in America has little to do with the art of trout fishing, and as Hayden writes, everything to do with social critique: “Brautigan is less concerned with man’s position with the cosmos than he is with man’s position in society itself.”
My initial misperception of Trout Fishing in America is important, because through that confusion Brautigan reveals one of his most prescient messages. The how-to, instructional facade of the title is deceptive; as Hayden argues, no formula exists for success in trout fishing, Brautigan declares through his formulaic, cause-and-effect-laden anecdotes, just like no formula exists for success in America. Throughout Trout Fishing in America, high ideals are corrupted by personal greed; formulas and recipes fail to produce expected outcomes. The American Dream itself is illusory like those streams and ponds or expectations that inflate fishing trips.
Hayden writes, “The narrator’s personal growth parallels the picture of nature he presents. The wilderness, which represents a kind of innocence, is fouled by society, while the narrator’s boyhood idealism turns into disillusionment.” Schmitz adds, “Trout Fishing is about that confrontation, Brautigan’s tragicomical reading of the portentous myth imposed on him.” Plenty of fish are caught in Trout Fishing in America, but they are landed in repulsive contexts; when one’s elixir turns into fool’s gold, a myth’s farce is revealed, and new meanings are discovered.
This is the journey that all anglers and writers make, which is why trout fishing is such a potent metaphor for this tragic comedy: the excitement, hope, and anticipation for a fishing trip can easily be mythologized but just as easily be deflated when reality surfaces; no fish were caught, the weather didn’t cooperate, fishing gear broke, and the idyllic setting was contaminated by civilization.
Brautigan’s vision also raises an important question about the purpose of literature in society: should it reveal or discover? What’s the difference between the two? Should contemporary literature pursue both? Can it afford not to? Brautigan does both in Trout Fishing in America, and his novella is a call to arms demanding that more writers do the same. Brautigan’s use of irony and absurdity, both of which are sadly cliché these days, is masterful, and through them he reveals and discovers new meanings about nature, prose, and society.
Irony and absurdity are stocked throughout, but how can any narrative with episodes of fishing excursions not contain these elements: the sport if filled with ironic twists, absurd surprises, and irrational outcomes (I’ll refrain, for the sake of brevity, from narrating the time I witnessed a log in a local brook move; a bull shark attack a mating stingray outside Annapolis, Maryland; or found a frozen, but still breathing, bottom dwelling ocean orange filefish in a shallow Florida estuary).
Like fishing, life, culture, and society are, at times, surreal, ironic, and absurd tragedies. Throughout Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan reveals that structures and connections can be found within everything, and the absurdity of our condition is that our reactions to irrationality too conveniently assume irony. By labeling something ironic or absurd we undermine its realism, and this, according to Brautigan, may be our most tragic of flaws.
However, amidst the linguistic acrobatics and social commentary, Trout Fishing in America offers unique insights about trout fishing because Brautigan finds something enlightening, redemptive, and magical about the sport. His attempts to balance Trout Fishing in America with trout fishing in America are a struggle, and as Schmitz writes, “Trout Fishing is thus at once a sustained criticism of the myth and a lyrical confession of its attractive values.” As fishermen, we are seduced by the myth of “catching the Big One,” knowing that through our surrender, we become the narrative, and subsequently, own and define it.
When the Big One never emerges, we rewind and revise the myth to suit our needs. Hayden states, “Brautigan’s narrator sojourns through the wilderness of Idaho hoping to find idyllic meaning in a primitive natural order, to be ‘part and particle’ of the organic harmony between fish and stream, animal and forest.” By shedding our identity in the woods along a trout stream, we recreate it, with the help of a few colorful trout and their gamely prodding. Like a shaman, trout fishermen explore nature’s fringes to discover new meanings, and then reveal them through stories, myths, and legends to their friends. America hasn’t witnessed a more effective shaman-fisherman than Richard Brautigan.