Gone Fishing, Again

by Christopher Heffernan The cult classic Trout Fishing in America, written by Richard Brautigan and first published in 1967, has been released in a new edition by Mariner Books, a subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  The book has not been published on its own since the early ‘80’s when Houghton Mifflin began packaging Brautigan’s books together in single volume sets with Trout Fishing in America set together with The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar.  The new standalone edition, costing $13.95, and running 112 pages has a warm introduction from former poet laureate Billy Collins but also comes with a startling peculiarity.  For the original edition and the subsequent packaged editions after the covers had been a picture of Brautigan with a woman in front of a blurred statue of Benjamin Franklin.  It may at first seem like it does not matter but the first chapter of the book speaks directly about this cover, so it seems strange that Mariner decided to change the cover to the childlike drawing of a fish that was used for the dedication page and instead put the photo that is the theme of the first chapter called “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America” inside the book, just before the introduction.  Of course the book business demands that as time goes by and tastes change so must covers change but with a post modern tour de force that uses meta as one of its key elements and has the first chapter titled and dealing directly with the cover, it is self defeating to change it. 

The book is divided up into 47 sections or chapters, each with a title, and ranging in length from one page to roughly six.  It is a quick read and a fun read and it is a read you can always go back to as the undercurrents that Brautigan deals with offer a depth that lurks in the back of each chapter and the back of the reader’s mind so that there are always new connections to be made and new feelings to be felt.  The sections are split into different threads and themes with some recurring but with no over all coherent story, making it lyrical.  But this does not make it any less of a novel.  What engages the reader is, first, Brautigan’s prose style; smooth, light, with easily read and digestible sentences that move easily and naturally from one to the other.  Then there is the clash of themes where, here, drama does not build in the character’s lives, it is built in the reader himself as the different images and scenes, descriptions and events constantly push into and pull each other along.  And then there is the aspect of metafiction, fiction that reflects upon itself.  Brautigan takes it and puts in the first chapter and references the cover, as mentioned, a photo taken in front of a Benjamin Franklin statue in a park in San Francisco.  The self referencing is important as it starts the function of building the book as an experience in the reader.  Good books make reading an experience so that the reader is not following a story but actually having emotional reactions to the work, is actually feeling and creating memories of feeling; so what Brautigan does by opening the book with a discussion of the cover is telling the reader that the event isn’t a story, or the book, but is actually the reader, as the reader must go back and observe the cover and now knows that the author who is now the narrator knows that he is writing a thing and he’s telling you he’s writing it so that like all good metafiction he points out that the thing is not the Thing but is a reflection of it and that the real Thing is life itself.  And then he goes on with the other themes, most particularly the degradation of America, as an optimistic description of the statue of Ben Franklin statue and the word WELCOME facing the four directions, are coupled with bums at a church across the street waiting for free sandwiches.  It is a scene of poverty and a clash with the manufactured image of America that moves throughout the book.  The image is then heightened by a Kafka quote that reads, “I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic.”

This degradation through its many facets, the rise of technology, loss of value, loss of a connection with something more natural or organic, etc, runs the length of the book and is paralleled and contrasted with the other large thread that is of pastoral scenes of fishing.  Many of these scenes involve a family, moving around from campsites in America, illustrating the splendor of the country and the depth of its natural beauty while at the same time reinforcing the book with the metaphor for fishing, sustenance, a theme as old as Christ.  What is remarkable about the book is that although Brautigan has forgone classic structure he retained one of the oldest themes, that of life returning life to itself with the symbol of fish.  That this lost connection with nature can be retrieved through fishing.  Over the centuries this theme often involved a redemption, usually of land or character but always in the end of life.  Brautigan knows this but does not state it.  Instead he gives the reader events and description so that instead of being told what the problem is it is made implicit and instead of being told what to do about it the book, being set up as an event itself, activates the reader’s own sympathy or empathy or even urgency.  This is one of the key elements that made it such a hit in the ‘60’s.  It was a true cry, a sign, pointing directly at the clash of technology and nature and that nature was loosing—as Brautigan points out when addressing the camping craze in America that the Coleman lamp has become the beacon of these people and that it is “unholy”; and as he points to the rise of consumerism which is wonderfully illustrated in the section titled “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard.”  In this chapter the narrator finds out about a place that sells streams for trout fishing, that you can go there and build a stream, paying for it by the foot, stock it with fish and even surround it with trees and shrubs and wildlife to make a perfectly manufactured natural setting.  Brautigan’s light style makes these few pages seem almost cutesy as the narrator is picking out what he wants and discusses options as if buying a car with the salesman.  But those Brautigan undercurrents begin to creep up and the astute reader will begin to realize that it is a simple but poignant and strong commentary on, what was at the time, a rising consumerism that is now our everyday way of life.  Though we do not buy trout streams by the foot, almost everything else in our society, including our health and our bodies, has become commodities for profit. 

What stands out in the book, though, as truly astounding, is the relationship that “Trout Fishing in America” has with the reader, that it is a thing, not only the book itself, but in the book “Trout Fishing in America,” exists as an object to be explored, a personification, an event and even an entity unto itself.  Brautigan begins this creation of Trout Fishing in America as an entity right in the second chapter where the narrator wonders about when he first heard about Trout Fishing in America and there is a response after his brief musings by Trout Fishing in America itself.  This sets the stage for Trout Fishing in America not being simply an activity or even a pastoral state of mind to be reached in the tranquility of nature, but an actual entity, running around out there.  It moves, it talks, it does things.  It is at the same time a hotel and a bum named Trout Fishing in America Shorty.  It is all these things and more and Brautigan does not waste his or the reader’s time by trying to define it or explain it so that the reader may on his own grasp it.  This is where his having the book as a true experience comes into play, because it is the event of reading all of the chapters and sections against each other where Trout fishing in America is all of these different things and exists as different things, undefined and explained in their relationships that, in the end, the reader must put it all together into the actual experience, the way that any person who lives through an event puts the pieces together for a full understanding. 

It is not all completely out of bounds.  In the end Brautigan brings the pastoral family of campers to the city and the park in San Francisco with the Franklin statue that starts the book, pinching the whole thing off almost as it had begun.  Here, with their little girl, they come across Trout Fishing in America Shorty who, old and broke and nearing death beckons to the child who at first pays him attention then with a flippancy and frivolity runs away.  It is a scene of contrasts and foils, of warmth and desperation, of family and loneliness that is offered to the reader, so typical of this book and Brautigan, with no implicit meaning other than what the reader can get from it with his own senses.  

Over all the book is short and accessible, easy to read, and easy to read on many levels.  It is an exquisite example of post modernism and a triumph of literary themes and explorations that edge into the prophetic.  It is almost sad that this book is a cult classic, that its association with the 60’s and the counter culture movement has basically trumped its validity as solid work of fiction.  Hopefully, now, enough time has gone by and with the publication of this new edition by itself the up and coming generation of readers will see Trout Fishing in America for what it truly is.