Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, which appeared in 1967, is actually his first novel (although published after A Confederate General from Big Sur, 1964), written in the early 1960’s. Its publication was timely: It appeared two years before the famous rock festival at Woodstock, New York, and at the height of the hippie movement. Antiestablishment, ecologically aware, and, simply, hip, it became a national best seller. Its short chapters allow for fast reading and allow readers to skip around, and Brautigan’s unconventional wisdom distills much of the thinking of the Woodstock generation.
Readers since the 1960’s, however, have had a wider range of reactions to the book. Brautigan’s prose often slips into a primerlike flatness, and his messages are sometimes sophomoric and pretentious. Trout Fishing in America is a novel in only a very loose sense. It is a collection of random observations and experiences strung together with cute chapter titles. There is, nevertheless, a charm and folk wisdom about the book as well as a concern with the natural world that places it in the serious mainstream of American writing along with works such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. Brautigan’s nature descriptions are often beautiful, and his analysis of the flip side of the American Dream is quite accurate. Trout Fishing in America is in many ways the representative novel of Brautigan’s generation, as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) was for his generation.
The title of the novel functions in at least three different ways to unify the varied parts of the book. First, the opening chapter, “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” not only describes the front photograph but also suggests the author’s disguise—his cover—as Trout Fishing in America, a personification of the myth of America as a land of vast open spaces, unlimited resources, and individual opportunity. The chapter describes the statue of Benjamin Franklin in San Francisco’s Washington Square; Franklin is the American prototype of the self-made man, the successful Yankee entrepreneur whose rags-to-riches life is the subject of his Autobiography (1791). Brautigan’s book is Franklin’s Autobiography turned upside down, a rejection of Franklin’s ethic of hard work and the way to wealth.
Early in the book, Brautigan recalls seeing, as a child, fishermen with three-cornered hats. The three-cornered hat, traditionally associated with the early American colonists, reveals these fishermen as typical Americans angling for riches and success, the same kind of “fishing” that was taught to the narrator himself. On his first fishing venture, he sees that what he earlier took to be a beautiful waterfall cascading from a hill is nothing more than a wooden staircase. Like the entire notion of the American Dream, the waterfall is an illusion. In his disguise as Trout Fishing in America, therefore, the narrator presents himself as a true believer in the doctrine of hard work, success, and moneymaking and the myth of the purity of the American landscape. The events throughout the novel undermine that belief.
Second, the title also suggests that the book is about America itself, its vast lands and pure streams that offer unlimited natural riches to all citizens. The novel is a series of disenchantments, some bitter and some sweet. There are the sad dead of Graveyard Creek and the dead fish of Worsewick Hot Springs. There is the inhuman destruction of coyotes at Salt Creek that makes the narrator think of the gas chamber at San Quentin. There is Mooresville, Indiana, home of famous criminal John Dillinger,...
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a town that still features violence, boredom, and anxiety. Most of all, there are the winos, the poor, and the homeless who wait for sandwich time at the church near Washington Square, only to find nothing but a leaf of spinach between two pieces of bread. There are the bums who pick cherries for Rebel Smith and wait like vultures for her discarded half-smoked cigarettes, and the winos and impoverished artists who talk of either opening up a flea circus or committing themselves to an insane asylum for the winter, where there is television and warm beds.
Nowhere is the distance between mythology and actual American experience more evident than in Trout Fishing in America Shorty, a legless one-man riot who appears throughout the novel “in a magnificent chrome-plated steel wheelchair.” Shorty is in many ways the quintessential American, a cheerful and energetic rugged individualist, a kind of Rotarian from hell. He thinks he is as good as anybody, drinks in public view, and is a militant patriot, shouting obscenities at the Italians in North Beach. He spends his days passed out in an alcoholic stupor in the front window of a Filipino Laundromat, and the narrator accurately observes that Shorty should someday be buried beside the Benjamin Franklin statue in Washington Square, for Shorty is the shadow of the Franklin myth of American success.
A third way in which the title functions as the controlling idea of the novel is in its evocation of the agrarian myth of the land and the great outdoors. Throughout the novel is a sense of the purity of nature, of the individualism of those isolated few who have inherited America’s pioneer spirit, and of the untapped primal energies that lie beneath the surface of America’s eroded landscape. Brautigan’s descriptions of natural wildlife and surroundings are done with a loving care that denies cynicism, and his use of American place-names (Owl Snuff Creek, Tom Martin Creek, Big Redfish Lake) suggests a delight in the names that Americans attach to their rivers, lakes, and campsites. Nature is present throughout the book.
In contrast, urban life appears as evil in the novel. Room 208 of a cheap hotel in San Francisco harbors the potential for violence and a prostitute trying to escape from her pimp. The winos and homeless of Washington Square clearly are, even in the glow of the author’s sympathetic portrayal, sad, lost souls. The narrator sees his fellow urban apartment dwellers as “dead people.” At the end of the book, the narrator rejects urban life and the technology and business ethic that go with it, trudging in the footsteps of Thoreau to his isolated cabin above Mill Valley.
The title, therefore, is what unifies the forty-seven short sections that compose the book, most of them no longer than a page or two. They are largely a series of reminiscences, from the narrator’s childhood to the memories of the good places he has fished. Interspersed are glimpses of his present world and life with his wife and daughter. The development in the novel lies in the narrator’s increasing disillusionment with the ruins of a corrupt, polluted, and destructive America. The culmination of this disillusionment comes at the Cleveland Wrecking Company. In one of the funniest sequences of the novel, the narrator asks about a used trout stream, plus all accessories, for sale at bargain prices. This is a surreal and miniaturized version of the Franklin business ethic and the modern consumer craze carried to its logical extreme. One more commodity, landscape is portioned out by friendly, affable hustlers to those with a keen eye for bargains. Waterfalls are appropriately stored in the plumbing department, along with toilets and urinals. The Cleveland Wrecking Company has few animals for sale because few are left. The many wild birds, the hundreds of mice, and the millions of insects that are available are the natural inheritors of the future.
At the end of the novel, Trout Fishing in America is seen for the last time, properly enough, near the Big Wood River, ten miles from Ketchum, Idaho, where Ernest Hemingway killed himself. It is Brautigan’s farewell to the Hemingway code of masculine endurance and romantic pantheism. In the California bush country, the narrator takes up residence in an isolated cabin above Mill Valley, realizing that he has been angling over a sterile wasteland. He sheds his illusions, discovers his own sexual and creative powers, and creates his own world, like the Kool-Aid Wino from his childhood, who “created his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.”