Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1766
Brautigan, Richard 1935–
American novelist and poet, best known for Trout Fishing in America.
Mr. Brautigan is funnier than [the] poor literates, these joke makers and gag writers; he is faster than Peter de Vries, he's faster than Congress, as wry as Ring Lardner, and as outrageous, though less bizarre. than the last American humorist, Nathanael West….
Only a true patriot can successfully make fun of America. At a time when our most gifted authors are dedicated to outdoing each other in apocalyptic metaphors and horrific allegories, a visionary and enthusiast like Brautigan is especially welcome.
Like all true humorists, Richard Brautigan eschews the label. Spies and humorists can only function under cover. So rather than thinking of Brautigan as a comic writer, imagine a six-foot country boy, with wire-rim glasses and a homemade haircut and a shaggy, Wild West moustache that doesn't quite hide a perpetual grin….
Inside this hulking innocent, this perfect bumpkin, is a special (very special) correspondent from a terribly literate sort of Field & Stream magazine whose contributors are outdoorsmen on the order of Turgenev, Hemingway, Bill Burroughs (expert on abnormal fauna and miraculous flora), Jack London, Robinson Jeffers and other high-class literary naturalists. In such exalted company, Mr. Brautigan is right at home.
We certainly are fortunate to have a writer like Mr. Brautigan, who isn't interested in shocking or terrifying or cursing America, but applies his talents to making us understand that "America is not an outhouse resting upon the imagination."
He writes of an America not unlike the humpback trout he claims to have caught, in prose that is as clean, as incisive, as graceful as anything being written in America today….
He writes clearly, enunciating each phrase. He is not sloppy, he is not sentimental, he is close to the ground and without intellectual pretensions. He is never profound, but he is often a poet. A literary man of the people: which is to say, he's a gifted hick. It takes a sort of sincerity that is traditional among country folk to bypass all the rhetoric and solve one of the mysteries to the American dilemma.
Stephen Schneck, in Ramparts, December, 1967.
It is often difficult to recommend Brautigan to an audience accustomed to being regularly bored by whatever apocalyptic surrealist of the week is blocking their driveway. The usual factional slogans don't seem to help in explaining his magic. It is perhaps easier to make the common reader see it, with his ordinary expectations in fiction. For what is important is that Brautigan's outlandish gift is based in traditional narrative virtues. His dialogue is supernaturally exact; his descriptive concision is the perfect carrier for his extraordinary comic perceptions. Moreover, the books possess a springtime moral emptiness; essentially works of language, they offer no bromides for living….
Brautigan is conspicuously the performer. To the reader accustomed to novels tiresomely self-contained and scrupulously unsympathetic, he offers shameless fictional showboating. He is not constantly tripping on the heart of darkness and coming up in maladroit black-humor glee to confirm our worst suspicions. He seems crazy with optimism. Like some widely gifted Rotarian who wants you to come to his town, he seems assured and sincere. Those who are claiming [Trout Fishing in America] as a classic might base their claims for continuity in exactly this optimism. Gentleness is his obsession, personal and ecological. Stylistically, his American next of kin is Kenneth Patchen; but the sunniness reminds the reader of not only people like Thoreau and W. C. Williams but the infrequently cited Zane Grey.
Thomas McGuane, in New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 15, 1970, p. 49.
I would give a dollar to know what is going on in Richard Brautigan's head while he writes his epigrammatic poems. They read like an urban renewal of an amalgamation of Zen Buddhism, William Carlos Williams, and the stoned comic strips of R. Crumb; they are as provokingly puzzling as any poetry I know. In Brautigan's prose (the fine [Trout Fishing in America], for instance) this naïve metaphysical clownishness can create a truly profound vision of our spiritual environment, but his verse, here as elsewhere, never develops any real solidity…. But at times Brautigan's crazy metaphors do work, creating a new perception of reality that is at once comic and poignant. And even when he is bad, he is his own man, and interesting.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn, 1970, p. cxxxiv.
Richard Brautigan's several novels and books of poems, most of which have been praised by reviewers like Herbert Gold and John Ciardi, are now being widely read in the campuses across the United States. Brautigan probably deserves popularity, for he has a lot going for him. He writes a terse, readable prose that often seems the output of an extremely hip computer that has been programmed with the styles of Hemingway, McGuffey's Reader, and the Berkeley Barb. His postage-stamp chapters allow for fast reading and a lot of skipping around—no mean virtues in the age of McLuhan. His unconventional wisdom distils many disparate things now in the heads of Woodstock generation: Brautigan "gets it all together" and is plugged in to the vibrations of the day. But whether, as Ciardi claims, "Brautigan manages effects the English novel has never produced before" is another matter. His prose often slips into a primer flatness … and his philosophy is sometimes sophomoric and pretentious. In Watermelon Sugar, Brautigan's science-fiction projection of the future, is overly "sweet" in most senses of the word, and the realms of iDEATH and inBOIL seem either too vague or too personal to take on genuine parabolic significance. Perhaps the most serious criticism that one can direct against Brautigan is that his novels lack structural design, that they are random observations and experiences strung together with cute chapter titles and little overall unity….
Trout Fishing in America … is first of all the autobiography of a societal drop-out, a contemporary hipster's progress from Jack Armstrong to Jerry Rubin. Trout fishing as a central metaphor becomes especially poignant in our current age of ecology, an age when America's fish and wildlife are rapidly being obliterated. Like the trout, the narrator is the victim of a technological world that cares little about him and his kind. Again like the trout, whose watery and insubstantial world creates the boundaries of its own reality, the narrator creates his own world in Mill Valley…. The novel … becomes a picaresque tale of a somewhat funky narrator, a modern Don Quixote, who is on the road searching for the romantic ideals of his childhood and for the genuinely human. What he discovers is a series of disenchantments….
Trout Fishing in America … is a hipster's view of America's square-world ethics, societal goals founded on achievement, wealth, and success—the whole Ben-Franklin syndrome. The central metaphor of the novel, trout fishing, implies through its associations the abundance, the richness, the good life that is every American's supposed birthright and the achievement of which is every American's dream. But Brautigan's view is from down under, from that of a societal freak who spends his days at San Francisco's Walden Pond for Winos and finds consolation in fantasy, art, and the pleasure of merely circulating. He has discovered what Alonso Hagen found almost seventy years before. Trout Fishing in America is a fraud, at best a chronicle of loss, frustration, and despair….
Granting the enthusiasm for flora and fauna, wildlife and isolation, Trout Fishing in America seems a pessimistic book. No joyous hymns to the seasons, no genuine celebration of nature's wonders—only a sense of waste and unnatural death, as in the account of the trout that dies from a drink of port wine….
Trout Fishing in America is a solid achievement in structure, significance, and narrative technique. For all its surface peculiarity, moreover, the book is centrally located within a major tradition of the American novel—the romance—and is conditioned by Brautigan's concern with the bankrupt ideals of the American past. Its seemingly loose and episodic narrative, its penchant for the marvelous and unusual, its pastoral nostalgia—all of these things give it that sense of "disconnected and uncontrolled experience" which Richard Chase finds essential to the romance-novel. Brautigan's offhand manner and sense of comic disproportion give to the narrative an extravagance and implausability more suited to the fishing yarn and tall-tale than to realistic fiction. Lying just below the comic exuberance of the book, furthermore, is the myth of the American Adam, the ideal of the New World Eden that haunts American fiction from Cooper to the present. The narrator of Trout Fishing in America is Leatherstocking perishing on the virgin land that once offered unbounded possibility, modern man longing for the restoration of the agrarian simplicity of pioneer America. That a life of frontier innocence is no longer possible adds to the desperate tone and comic absurdity of the narrator's frustrated excursions into the American wilderness.
Kenneth Seib, "Trout Fishing in America: Brautigan's Funky Fishing Yarn," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1971, pp. 63-71.
Only Richard Brautigan could write so lyrically of the healing force of ice in the blood, or the quirky peace of the supercool. From the brilliant novels, [Trout Fishing in America] and [In Watermelon Sugar] to this first collection, [Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962–1970], Brautigan has written sublimely of the way misery can turn into a joke, or anguish into a deadpan anecdote. For all Brautigan's characters are trout fishermen fishing for cool, freezing away every psychic ache, or looking for that cold, hard alloy Brautigan calls "trout steel." "Imagine Pittsburgh," Brautigan asks in [Trout Fishing in America], made out of trout steel, "the clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat." For Brautigan is the prophet of cities built out of ice rather than fire, of an America whose emblem would be no war-god eagle, but an elusive cold fish….
Brautigan always writes of deadpan children, of the little corporals, of the luckless fishermen at life. But they can alchemize themselves into trout people and live with steely passions and diluted hopes. Brautigan makes cutting out your heart the only way to endure, the most beautiful way to protest the fact that life can be an endless down. [Revenge of the Lawn] is not Brautigan's best book. But it has the Brautigan magic—the verbal wildness, the emptiness, the passive force of people who have gone beyond winning or losing to an absolute poetry of survival.
Josephine Hendin, in New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 16, 1972, pp. 7, 22.
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