Richard Brautigan Short Fiction Analysis
Richard Brautigan’s short fiction explores the imagination’s power to transform reality. In some stories, this means contrasting a gritty, naturalistic portrait of cheap materialism, personal defeat, and latent violence with a vision of the lost American Eden or a nostalgic remembrance of childhood’s innocence. Collectively, the stories describe a search for good in contemporary America, but because they sympathize with the defeated, they suggest that such a search is futile. Brautigan’s stories stoically accept the conditions of existence, withholding judgment while suggesting that the imagination holds the only possible hope for transcendence.
The stories are self-consciously artificial, continually calling attention to the process of their creation. The typographical experimentation, outrageous figures of speech, extreme compression, and deceptively simplistic syntax work through a disengaged narrative voice to create prose that has been compared to skywriting. The conscious artificiality of Brautigan’s stylistic mannerisms has led some critics to dismiss his work as whimsical, coy, naïve, and self-indulgent.
Trout Fishing in America
Although Trout Fishing in America became popular as a counterculture book during the late 1960’s, it was written in 1961 as a late expression of the San Francisco Beat movement. Brautigan, like other Beats, had been conditioned by the experience of the Great Depression and World War II, historical examples of deprivation and violence, and he saw in these experiences deep truths that belied America’s complacent prosperity. In contrast to the radicals of the 1930’s and the New Left of the 1960’s, Brautigan and other Beats sought social change not through collective action but through personal transformation.
Thus, Trout Fishing in America is an antididactic book, an effort to document America from a disengaged, thoroughly nonpolitical point of view. Although the America it documents is spiritually decayed, the forty-seven stories that compose Trout Fishing in America do not promote a program of social reform. Instead, the book’s underlying philosophy, derived from Zen Buddhist belief, assumes that life is essentially determined and that social progress is an illusion. Brautigan expounds a politics of the imagination in which social activism is supplanted by the individual imagination’s ability to create a vision of freedom, a vision of an America that is “often only a place in the mind.” To this extent, the explicit theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, which was published in 1961, as Trout Fishing in America was being written, suits Brautigan’s book: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Brautigan’s unnamed narrator uses his imagination to “fish” for something of value in the stream of contemporary America, but like his comically failed fisherman Alonso Hagen in “Fishing on the Streets of Eternity,” his effort becomes “an interesting experiment in total loss.”
Stylistically, Trout Fishing in America seems without literary precedent, a documentary collage of prose poems and cultural allusions that exhibits no interest in character, plot development, or psychological motivation. Literary parodies (of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Henry David Thoreau) are juxtaposed to references to historical figures (Richard Nixon, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Andrew Carnegie, Caryl Chessman, Deanna Durbin) and the signatures of popular culture (bumper stickers, diaries, tombstone engravings, recipes, warning signs). Woven through this cultural stew is the protean phrase “Trout Fishing in America,” which is applied to people, places, a hotel, a pen nib, a state of mind, and the book itself.
“The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” the opening piece, exemplifies the book’s self-consciousness and introduces Brautigan’s ironic view of America. By describing the book’s cover photograph, Brautigan reminds his reader that Trout Fishing in America is itself an artifact, a component of the society he is documenting. He then juxtaposes a statue of Benjamin Franklin, the prototypical American optimist, to the derelicts who sadly wait in the park hoping for a handout. Although the concluding quotation from Franz Kafka, “I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic,” is ironic, Brautigan’s matter-of-fact presentation prevents the piece from being read as social protest. Instead, the book implies that optimism, no matter how ill-founded, is a part of the American condition.
“The Kool-Aid Wino”
In a complementary way, “The Kool-Aid Wino” demonstrates the imagination’s power to overcome the limitations of existence. The Kool-Aid Wino is a child who is restricted from picking beans or engaging in active play by a hernia. His family is too poor to afford an operation or even a truss, so the Kool-Aid Wino spends his days lovingly preparing a watered-down, sugarless version of Kool-Aid “like a famous brain surgeon removing a disordered portion of the imagination.” Through his ceremonious preparation and consumption he creates “his own Kool-Aid reality” and is “able to illuminate himself by it.” The story celebrates the human capacity to transcend reality while simultaneously portraying the sad deprivations that make such imaginative escape necessary.
In “Trout Fishing on the Bevel,” Brautigan’s narrator describes fishing a stream that runs past two graveyards, one for the rich and one for the poor. Like many of Brautigan’s short fictions, “Trout Fishing on the Bevel” meditates on loneliness, poverty, death, and the desire to transcend them. The narrator describes the weathered boards, “like heels of stale bread,” that mark the graves of the poor and imagines darkly humorous inscriptions (“Beloved Worked-to-Death Mother Of”) that disclose the painful reality usually disguised by euphemisms. In contrast, the graves of the rich are marked with “marble hors d’oeuvres like horses trotting up the fancy paths to the sky.” Admittedly “bothered” by “the poverty of the dead,” the narrator has “a vision of going over to the poor graveyard and gathering up grass and fruit jars and tin cans and markers and wilted flowers and bugs and weeds and clods and going home and putting a hook in the vise and tying a fly with all that stuff and then going outside and casting it up into the sky, watching it float over clouds and then into the evening star.” It is one of Brautigan’s clearest statements of his artistic purpose, expressing his desire to construct from the forgotten or overlooked bits of life an art that can imaginatively free his narrator and his reader from the particular loneliness of existence.
“The Cleveland Wrecking Yard”...
(The entire section is 2818 words.)