Trout Fishing in America – Richard Brautigan

Published by the Four Seasons Foundation, 1970 

I began Brautigan during a short stay at a friend’s grandmother’s house down at Margaret River- a trip the old highschool gang somehow always manages to get happening at least once a year. I had never heard of Brautigan before (the shadows of my knowledge of culture and history are vast and overwhelming), but I had seen his name mentioned casually in a Facebook comment, and curiosity subsequently gave a quick, irritable little kick on the right side of my spare time. Following up the reference (because so often who you know is how you get to know anybody better) I did some cursory internet excavations on the man and his past, the return of which was an eye-widening and head-cocking. So when, in June, my university library borrowing privileges were returned to me after a year-long spell of arid non-studenthood, I spent some time rummaging about the shelves and succeeded in laying hands on a shabby and worn little book (the best kind in my opinion- fuck gloss). There is no title on its cover page- just an old photograph, and on it a man and a woman in front of the Benjamin Franklin statue in Washington Square Park. The man- Brautigan- stands to the left, and has some kind of hippy cowboy thing going on- large, wire-rim glasses, thickly-hanging mustache, flower-print shirt with liberal open-buttoning up top, a vest fitted snugly over the top, rugged jeans and a very nice overcoat with the collar flared up like the setting of a black and brooding sun over a man’s shoulder-horizon. I do not know the correct name for the kind of hat the man is wearing, but it looks like an enormous thumb has been pushed up from a flat layer of manipulable felt.  His pose is that which says: I always know where in this land there is a shepherd’s pie waiting for me on a wooden table.

By his feet is a woman, legs splayed out in a posture that I could not say one way or the other is elegant or visually discomfiting. Beneath a broad white headband, she smiles with a kind of tepid serenity. In the first chapter- devoted to explaining the photograph, this lady is identified as Michaela La Grand- not the wife of the author nor (allegedly) lover, but his room-mates ex and his own “muse”.Is the muse still a thing nowadays? I wonder this.

Crouched by the single heater in that cold, borrowed house down south, I dipped my nose into the singular and splendid oddity that I discovered to be Trout Fishing in America.

Written mostly during a family camping trip in Idaho’s Stanley Basin in the summer 1961 and published six years later, TFIA was Brautigan’s first major work, which upthrust him onto a narrow but permanent ledge of American literary fame. It develops plotless and hiprollingly, its brief chapters organized into a sequence of thought-figures which- it they don’t begin somewhere outlandish- are sure-set to drift there eventually. Pre-eminently, Brautigan takes the subject of these prose-sketches to be the American man, and the means, places and pleasures where he sets up rod. Pungent and poetic, chipper and absurd, set to a digressive and larky beat, these little vignettes all slip into, past and through each other, unified by that polysemic, sovereign synechdoche and refrain of: Trout Fishing in America.

Look, it’s kind of hard to explain without quoting sections of the book extensively. See in TFIA, the ontology of ‘trout fishing in America’ is a happy, slippy, expansive thing. It can embody place, person and phenomena. In one chapter, for instance, it is a fugitive killer; in another, a curmudgeon without legs called ‘Shorty’ (whom, incidentally, an Apollo 11 astronaut named a moon crater after). It’s the amiable companion Brautigan chews the fat with when he’s casting ‘super-dupers’ into Frisco creeks, batting about the question of whether the Missouri River looks anything at all like Deanna Durbin (Trout Fishing in America says: no). A hypothetical autopsy of Trout Fishing in America is also presented in one chapter, but only “if it had been Lord Byron and had died in Missolonghi, Greece, and never saw the shores of Idaho again.”

Drawn and spun out from observations from his camping trips, encounters along the way and old memories of home and growing up, TFIA drifts backwards and forwards, lulled by its own peculiar temporality. Formally, its damn kinky. Its language is just beautiful though- cheerfully whistling and humming with a kind of wry and whimsical clarity. I like the short sentences. I could definitely learn from this guy, me.

If you overlook the indisputably mid-century patriarchal undercurrent informing it all, reading Brautigan is a real pellucid treat of an experience. It seems to contain some lost essence of America’s Romantic idea of what a man could be; that good old Mr Natural of the 60’s- hardy, independent, idle, free. It idealizes the “man inculpable” (no ‘what’d I do?’ here)- the guy who looks to his own, tends to his own, looks at America as his own, is forever fresh and upbeat. It professes its own genial innocence and love of things- family, companions, quietude, the wilderness, life- as something fundamental and immanent.

When the book first came out, it hit the zeitgeist right in the gut. A young Billy Collins (later to become America’s poet laureate), had this to say about it:

“I took the stack of pages…sat down on the floor, and began reading. A few hours later, I looked up, blinking like someone emerging from a strange cavern. I had never read anything like it. This book, I was convinced, was our very own Alice in Wonderland. And Brautigan was our Lewis Carroll…”

The prophets of the day too exclaimed its revolutionary force. It seemed to promise things. Yet as the century aged, Brautigan dropped out of favour. Like a bit of bacon leftover from yesterday, found still in the pan.  To the increasingly wiser-guy, wider-world attuned 70’s and 80’s, and against the souring backdrop of dubious politics (ya got Watergate,  ya got Vietnam), his naivete somehow comes across as thoughtlessness. To which some responded, I guess, with an exasperated edge of contempt. He was “the baby thrown out with the bathwater” a friend commented. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (poet and founder of City Lights Publishers) said “it was like he was much more in tune with the trout in America than with people.” Brautigan’s later works never came close to his earliest success (although for some reason, he remained consistently popular in Japan). He was a talent that breached, then almost immediately, beached itself.

The remainder of Brautigan’s personal story is sad. Quoting Charles McNair over at Paste magazine, “Brautigan shot himself in a big rambling house in northern California in 1984. He was 49, alcoholic, alone. A private eye discovered his body, or what remained of it, about a month after the suicide.”

The man and TFIA has tided over to the 21st century to leave its imprint however. And with some folks, a peculiar one. From the TFIA Wikipedia entry:

“In March 1994, a teenager named Peter Eastman Jr. from Carpinteria, CA legally changed his name to “Trout Fishing in America”. He now teaches English in Japan. At around the same time, National Public Radio reported on a young couple who had named their baby “Trout Fishing in America”.”

People are strange. I love them.

FRAGMENTS

The sun was like a huge fifty-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then and lit with a match and said, “Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,” and put the coin in my hand, but never came back. I had walked for miles and miles until I came to the rock under the tree and sat down. Every time a car would come by, about once every ten minutes, I would get up and stick out my thumb as if it were a bunch of bananas and then sit back down on the rock again.(7)

The man walked over to a rat that was busy eating a friend and placed the pistol against the rat’s head. The rat did not move and continued eating away. When the hammer clicked back, the rat paused between bites and looked out of the corner of its eye. First at the pistol and then at the man. It was a kind of friendly look as if to say, “When my mother was young she sang like Deanna Durbin. (13)

Ah, yes, there was a future in the insane asylum. No winter could be spent there at a loss. (18)

We were all silent except for blink, blink, blink, blink, blink. Suddenly I could hear his God-damn eye blinking. It was very much like the sound of an insect laying the 1,000,000th egg of our disaster. (39)

The disguise was perfect. Nobody ever saw him, except, of course, the Victims. They saw him. Who would have expected? He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and bluejays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes. (48)

The farmer did not ruin his audition for the Metropolitan Opera by making a sound. He just nodded his head again. The truck started up. He was the original silent old farmer. (56)

The fish was a twelve-inch rainbow trout with a huge hump on its back. A hunchback trout. The first I’d ever seen. The hump was probably due to an injury that occurred when the trout was young. Maybe a horse stepped on it or a tree fell over in a storm or its mother spawned where they were building a bridge. There was a fine thing about that trout. I only wish I could have made a death-mask of him. Not of his body though, but of his energy. I don’t know if anyone could have understood its body. (57)

The Lysol sits like another guest on the stuffed furniture, reading a copy of the Chronicle, the Sports Section. It is the only furniture I have ever seen that looks like baby food. (66)

I went down to the Hall of Justice to bail my friend out, and discovered that 208 is the room number of the bail office. It was very simple. I paid ten dollars for my friend’s life and found the original meaning of 208, how it runs like melting snow all the way down the mountainside to a small cat living and playing in Hotel Trout Fishing in America, believing itself to be the last cat in the world, not having seen another cat in such a long time, totally unafraid, newspaper spread out all over the bathroom floor, and something good cooking on the hot plate. (70)

The old woman had an old dog, but he hardly counted any more. He was so old that he looked like a stuffed dog. Once I took him for a walk down to the store. It was just like taking a stuffed dog for a walk. I tied him up to a stuffed fire hydrant and he pissed on it, but it was only stuffed piss. (81)

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise. (111)

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