I came across the Wikipedia page of writer Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) and thought he sounded so interesting that I read some of his work, including his best-known book, Trout Fishing in America.
Do I think he’s a good writer? It’s not a simple answer. At times I felt intrigued by his work; at times I felt like it was a bit of a put-on, like he was being bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. And that’s what this post is about: a highly-original writer whose work doesn’t fit the standard genres or criteria, who has a devoted following among some readers and who is considered little more than an artifact of Sixties counterculture by others.
Trout Fishing in America is usually described as a novel, but it’s more of a loosely-connected collection of vignettes that often feel like prose poems, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, often surrealistic. Trout fishing is a recurring theme, but Trout Fishing in America is also a person, sort of a timeless embodiment of trout fishing (and distinct from Trout Fishing in America Shorty, a legless wino who screams at passersby — Brautigan had a weird sense of humor). The chapters are short, sometimes less than a page, and there is very little plot, no character development, and the book ends — apropos of nothing — with a chapter on mayonnaise.
So one way to look at it is that Brautigan came along at exactly the right time and place — 1960s San Francisco — where his style fit the counterculture’s embrace of the spontaneous and the absurd, and their rejection of bourgeois values… and then that cultural moment passed and TFIA is left over like an old set of love beads, a historical curiosity.
Or, as an Amazon reviewer complained, “I have tried three times to read Trout Fishing and Watermelon Sugar and each time nothing new hits me. I am convinced that their [sic] is no meaning. I even googled for an hour trying to find an analysis on this story and found nothing! Maybe that is the point; the inability to be analyzed, but how then, can it be considered literature?”
On the other hand, Dwight Garner, in his New York Times review of William Hjortsberg’s massive biography of Brautigan, Jubilee Hitchhiker, while he complains that the biography is “total overkill”, also says Hjortsberg “nails the qualities that I’ve admired about Brautigan’s work, notably his ‘easy offhand voice, his concern for average working-class people, his matter-of-fact treatment of death, and his often startling juxtaposition of wildly disparate images.’”
Here’s a brief excerpt from an early chapter of TFIA, in which the narrator describes himself as a boy who has seen by twilight what he thinks is a trout stream, and goes there in the morning planning to catch his first trout with a homemade hook and a slice of bread for bait:
How beautiful the field looked and the creek that came pouring down in a waterfall off the hill.
But as I got closer to the creek I could see that something was wrong. The creek did not act right. There was a strangeness to it. There was a thing about its motion that was wrong. Finally I got close enough to see what the trouble was.
The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees.
I stood there for a long time, looking up and looking down, following the stairs with my eyes, having trouble believing.
Then I knocked on my creek and heard the sound of wood.
I ended up being my own trout and eating the slice of bread myself.
The Reply of Trout Fishing in America:
There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t change a flight of stairs into a creek. The boy walked back to where he came from. The same thing once happened to me. I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont, and I had to beg her pardon.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I thought you were a trout stream.”
“I’m not,” she said.
I think it’s probably a mistake to look for meaning in TFIA. I don’t think that’s what the book is about. What draws people to it, I think, isn’t so much what happens as how it’s told, the peculiar, wry, sometimes innocent and sometimes knowing way that Brautigan tells the story, the unexpected connections he makes.
His writing reminds me of outsider art, in which people with little or no formal training create visionary and often highly unconventional works of art. Sometimes outsider art is associated with mental illness. Brautigan was treated for paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression in the 1950s, and depression led to his suicide at age 49. Is there a connection between this and his peculiar style? I don’t know. Perhaps.
I also don’t know that that the “outsider” description entirely fits Brautigan; he was a purposeful artist who sought an audience, and did his share of hobnobbing with famous people. But for all the quirks of his style, there’s something about his off-kilter view of the world that subtly alters your own. It’s as if the narrative style itself — its quietness, its randomness, its humor and its strange metaphors — is itself the story. And that, I think, more than any residual sixties mystique, is why he still has a following after all these years.