Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 337
Trout Fishing in America is not a didactic book. Although it portrays an America of victims, a society with an endless capacity to transform beauty into saleable commodities, a world scarred by the decay and death of spirit, the book does not promote a program of reform. There is no hope of melioration, for the book's underlying philosophy, derived largely from Zen Buddhist thought, holds that life is repetitive and essentially determined. Such a view leaves no room for heroism and sees social progress as illusory. Brautigan's distrust of collective enterprise sets him apart from both the socially conscious writers of the 1930s and the hippies of the 1960s. Trout Fishing in America, like A Confederate General from Bug Sur (1964), suggests that any communal effort is futile. For Brautigan, social activism is supplanted by the individual imagination's effort to maintain and defend a vision of America, "often only a place in the mind," against the onslaught of experiential reality. In this sense, the explicit theme of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, which was published in 1961 as Trout Fishing in America was being written, fits Brautigan's book: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
The central image of trout fishing suggests Brautigan's theme. Through his narrator, the author "fishes" for something of value in contemporary America, but like Alonso Hagen, the failed fisherman whose diary is discovered in "Trout Fishing on the Streets of Eternity" Brautigan's search proves to be "an interesting experiment in total loss." Thus, Trout Fishing in America examines the American optimism for which it can find no basis in experience. In the first chapter Brautigan describes a statue of Benjamin Franklin, the great American optimist, in a park surrounded by people waiting for a handout, and he quotes an ironic line from Kafka: "I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic." One of the last chapters describes the Cleveland Wrecking Yard, the fantastic repository of the shattered bits of the American dream.