The first chapter of Richard Brautigan's short novel "Trout
Fishing in America" (1967), a book that people used to like a lot
and now remains an interesting footnote in American literature, is
a description of the cover of "Trout Fishing in America." The cover
is a photograph of Washington Square in San Francisco, with its
statue of Benjamin Franklin.
"All around the grass is wet from the rains of early February,"
Brautigan writes. "There is a tall church across the street from
the statue with crosses, steeples, bells, and a vast door that
looks like a huge mousehole, perhaps from a Tom and Jerry cartoon,
and written above the door is 'Per L'Universo.'" Eventually,
inexplicably, the photograph comes alive: "Around five o'clock in
the afternoon of my cover for 'Trout Fishing in America,' people
gather in the park across the street from the church and they are
hungry. It's sandwich time for the poor." The poor people "run
across the street to the church and get their sandwiches that are
wrapped in newspaper. They go back to the park and unwrap the
newspaper and see what their sandwiches are all about."
"A friend of mine," Brautigan adds, "unwrapped his sandwich one
afternoon and looked inside to find just a leaf of spinach. That
"Trout Fishing in America" is one of those novels whose contents
are pretty much impossible to describe. It doesn't have a plot, and
it doesn't really have any proper characters, either. It's not
about fishing, although fishing is one of its more important
motifs. There are chapters entitled "Hunchback Trout," "Sandbox
Minus John Dillinger Equals What?," "Prelude to the Mayonnaise
Chapter," and "The Mayonnaise Chapter," which form a series of
whimsical, often fantastical, vaguely connected vignettes in which
the phrase "Trout Fishing in America" appears again and again,
attaining a sort of mystical significance extending beyond the act
itself. There is a character named Trout Fishing in America, who
writes letters to other characters in the book.
As I write about it, I know it sounds determinedly, overbearingly
zany, and I'm not sure how to convince you that it's not, but I'll
mention first that it's an amazingly funny book, a wonder of
free-associative humor, whose outrageous imagination, conveyed in a
zen-like calm, makes its own kind of sense. Nothing about it is
realistic, yet I can't think of many books that feel more truthful;
it's a novel without agenda, structure, or artifice. Its jokes, its
visions, and its sadness all come direct.
Born in 1935, Brautigan grew up in poverty in the Pacific
Northwest. He moved to San Francisco in the 1950s, fell in with its
budding counterculture, and distributed his own poetry around the
city. He's sometimes grouped with the older Beat Generation authors
- who, like Brautigan, hung out at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City
Lights Bookstore - but this always bothered me because, really, he
had none of the petulant, self-regarding nonconformism of, say,
Jack Kerouac, no genius-of-life-and-art pretense. There's a deep
humility in all his work: his narrators, usually, are likable
losers, who, barely scraping by, remain careful appreciators of the
world's small pleasures; the coexisting phantasmagoria in his books
comes unhyped, understated, confidential.
Of all the novelists I've read, Brautigan is probably the least
interested in impressing his intelligence upon the reader. He was a
weird guy who liked writing down his weird thoughts, not a man with
a message or a serious-minded artist. His popularity reached its
zenith in the late '60s, when the hippie movement embraced him and
his trippy, unconventional literature, but Brautigan didn't want to
be part of any movement: his eccentricity had no social or
political impetus. Because he never moved beyond benign oddness,
critics viewed his work as "anti-intellectual," but he wasn't an
anti-intellectual; he was a very bright non-intellectual. He wasn't
what they wanted a writer to be, but he refused to be anything
other than what he was.
Filled as his sentences were with off-kilter similes (Brautigan
once compared tree branches to "the intestines of an emerald"), his
syntax was unwaveringly simple, and his deadpan style sometimes
sounds a little like Vonnegut - who brought Brautigan's small-press
work to the attention of a major publishing house, Delacorte - but
Brautigan's tranquility, unlike Vonnegut's, conceals no dissident
rage. Other authors of the '70s, like Tom Robbins, tried to lend a
cerebral heft to Brautigan's brand of surrealism, but their work
today seems arch and strained. Among contemporary writers, the most
willing to indulge in the purposeless nuttiness of Brautigan's
novels is Haruki Murakami, who has acknowledged the American writer
as an influence, but Murakami, too, is more ambitious and therefore
more conventionally literary.
What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that Brautigan was an
inimitable original. His was a minor voice in literature, but the
purity of his work - everything in his books is fresh and
unadorned- is sort of inspiring to me. It makes me want to write a
little less turgidly, a little more openly.
Brautigan's most moving novel, the semiautobiographical "So the
Wind Won't Blow It All Away" (1982), was his last one, an attempt
to preserve fragments of his troubled, indigent boyhood in Oregon.
He committed suicide in 1984.
Nine novels by Brautigan were published during his lifetime, and
for a writer so unique, maybe this was a kind of a miracle. One of
his books, "The Abortion," describes a library designed to hold
unpublished manuscripts, titles such as "Bacon Death" and "UFO vs.
CBS," written by authors who sound like Brautigan's kindred
spirits. At one point in the novel, Brautigan himself stops in to
drop off a book called "Moose," and the librarian asks him what
it's about. "Just another book," Brautigan replies.