Trout Fishing in America Summary
Trout Fishing in America is Brautigan’s best-known and probably most important novel, but it is organized in a manner different from his other novels and from more conventional examples of the genre. For one thing, it has no easily recognizable plot structure. Rather, it weaves together (with apparent randomness) about forty episodes in the unnamed narrator’s life and juxtaposes these with a few miscellaneous sections that illuminate the chapters in their vicinity. One thread of the story deals with the experiences of the narrator’s boyhood. From these the reader gains a sense of his unusual personality—especially his separateness, vivid imagination, and highly individual way of viewing life.
Another thread consists of the narrator’s trout fishing experiences, though these sometimes overlap with the boyhood episodes. Chapters set during the narrator’s adolescence show him seeking comfort and meaning from nature, well outside organized American society. Yet another thread in this complexly textured novel deals with the narrator’s life in beatnik San Francisco. By this point he has married and fathered a child. The reader will quickly notice that the chapters are not presented chronologically; instead, they occasionally form small thematic packets or sometimes appear to be arranged for the humorous relationships to one another.
The themes of Trout Fishing in America are at least as complex and various as the book’s structure. Many values that can be observed in Brautigan’s other books are upheld here. Certainly, friendship is important in life, the book implies, but so, too, are love, a direct contact with nature, freedom, individuality, and a good sense of humor.
Central to grasping the meaning of the novel is an understanding of Brautigan’s many uses of the term “trout fishing in America.” At its most fundamental level, the term refers to the actual act of fishing for trout—specifically, how this very act can rehabilitate a troubled mind. The term also represents nature itself in some sections and a state of mind that rises above the ordinary in others. Furthermore, the phrase is used as both a mythical character’s name and a spirit of adventurousness in which freedom and rebellion combine to produce an idealized view of the possibilities of life. While this last use of the term tends to give the work a zestful quality in some places, the book is not fundamentally optimistic.
At the heart of Trout Fishing in America is a critique of contemporary American life and culture. Rampant commercialism, the packaging and selling of both the body and the myth of America, is shown in all its ugliness in the important “Cleveland Wrecking Yard” chapter as well as in several other parts of the novel. Nature and the environment have become secondary concerns in a country where an abundance of wildlife (including trout) and the purity of air and water have been taken for granted for centuries. Restrictions to personal liberty and the pressures on the individual to conform to American society’s accepted roles are also criticized.
Such themes are not unique to this work; Brautigan’s ideas are closely related to those of other artists of the Beat movement. Brautigan’s extravagant humor masks the criticism implied by the work, however; the narrator never preaches, and if he does moralize, it is by means of a joke—often aimed at someone very much like himself. What is unique in the work is Brautigan’s method of making both story and meaning.
Trout Fishing in America is probably best understood if it is viewed as a novel that owes much to poetry. While it was published after A Confederate General from Big Sur , it had been written previously, when all that Brautigan had published to that point were volumes of verse. The key phrase of the work, “trout fishing in America,” acts much like an incantation or refrain in poetry—providing an echo of the main topic from beginning to end, while changing its meaning as the...
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