Trout Fishing in America

by Richard Brautigan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790

Trout Fishing in America begins with a description of the book’s cover photograph, a picture of Brautigan and his wife, Virginia “Ginny” Adler, in front of the statue of Benjamin Franklin in San Francisco’s Washington Square. The poor gather there around five in the afternoon to eat sandwiches given to them by the church across the street. One of the narrator’s friends once unwrapped his sandwich to find only a leaf of spinach inside.

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The first time the narrator had heard about trout fishing in America was from a drunken stepfather, and, as a child in Portland, Oregon, he once walked to a street corner and saw a waterfall pouring down from a hill. The next morning, ready to go trout fishing for the first time, he returned to find that the waterfall was only a pair of wooden stairs leading up to a house. Seventeen years later, an actual fisherman, he tried to hitch a ride to go fishing, but no car would pick him up—another disappointment.

Another childhood memory involves the Kool-Aid Wino, a friend who, because of an injury, had to stay home all day. Together, the narrator and the Wino bought grape Kool-Aid and ceremoniously made an entire gallon of it from a nickel package. Ready for a day’s drinking, they created their own Kool-Aid reality. Recipes for apple compote, pie crust, “spoonful” pudding, and walnut catsup lead to memories of Mooresville, Indiana, the home of the John Dillinger Museum, where a Mooresville resident once discovered a basement full of rats and, Dillinger-like, bought a revolver to get rid of them. The narrator’s memories continue to move back and forth from early recollections to recent ones, and from urban memories to outdoor ones.

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In San Francisco (a “Walden Pond for Winos”), the narrator and his friends, unemployed artists, talk of opening a flea circus or committing themselves to a mental asylum, where it would be warm and they would have clean clothes, hot meals, and pretty nurses. At Tom Martin Creek, Graveyard Creek, and other fishing places, the narrator equally fails to find satisfaction, fighting brush, poison oak, and narrow canyons to fish. Back in San Francisco, the narrator fantasizes about making love in a bookstore to a woman whose husband owns 3,859 Rolls-Royces. Fishing in Hayman Creek, Owl Snuff Creek, and elsewhere catching great trout equally proves to be a fantasy.

In San Francisco again, the narrator sees Trout Fishing in America Shorty, a legless, screaming middle-aged wino who trundles about in a wheelchair in the North Beach area. When not passed out in the window of a Filipino Laundromat, Shorty wheels through the streets shouting obscenities in fake Italian (“Tra-la-la-la-la-la-Spa-ghet-tiii!”). One day, Shorty passes out in Washington Square in front of the statue of Ben Franklin, and the narrator and a friend think they should crate him up and ship him to American author Nelson Algren, for Shorty is like an Algren character in the books The Neon Wilderness (1947) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956). They never get around to shipping Shorty and they soon lose track of him, but Shorty should someday be buried, the narrator concludes, beside the Franklin statue, as he and Franklin are both symbols of America. The narrator fantasizes another symbol of America, the Mayor of the Twentieth Century. Wearing mountains on his elbows and blue jays on his shirt collar, the Mayor is a modern Jack the Ripper, performing deeds of murder at night with a razor, a knife, and a ukelele, the last of these an instrument not even Scotland Yard would suspect.

The narrator continues to fish for trout in places such as Paradise Creek, Salt Creek, Spirit Prison, Duck Lake, and Little Redfish Lake, but he catches very little. He is reminded of a time in Gelatao in southern Mexico when, cleaning an attic for an elderly lady, he came across the trout-fishing diary kept by the lady’s brother. It contained a ledger calculating the number of trout he had lost over a seven-year period, more than two thousand.

In another fantasy, at the Cleveland Wrecking Company the narrator inquires about a used trout stream, plus all accessories, for sale at a bargain price. Everything is for sale: land, disassembled waterfalls, trout streams, trees and bushes, animals, birds and insects. He envisions Leonardo da Vinci, on the payroll of the South Bend Tackle Company, inventing a new spinning lure for trout fishing called “The Last Supper.” Living, like the Kool-Aid Wino, on invented reality, the narrator takes up residence in a rented cabin above Mill Valley, California, and for no particular reason other than that he had always wanted to, ends his trout-fishing narrative with the word “mayonnaise.”

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