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Guy Davenport's review of 'Trout Fishing in America' and 'In Watermelon Sugar'
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C'est Magnifique Mais Ce N'est Pas Daguerre

by Guy Davenport

Mr. Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar are experimental pieces of quite spirited conception. The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster is a book of poems, and therefore exempt from our purview here. The first page of Trout Fishing in America is a photograph of the author and his wife dressed as character actors in a cowboy movie. Behind them is a statue of Franklin, and the setting is Washington Square in San Francisco. Mr. Brautigan explains the significance of the photograph:

Around the base of the statue are four words facing the directions of the world, to the east WELCOME, to the west WELCOME, to the north WELCOME, to the south WELCOME. Just behind the statue are three poplar trees, almost leafless except for the top branches. The statue stands in front of the middle tree. All around the grass is wet from the rains of early February.
In the background is a tall cypress tree, almost dark like a room. Adlai Stevenson spoke under the tree in 1956, before a crowd of 40,000 people.
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."
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.
But they cannot cross the street until the signal is given. Then they all 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 unwrapped his sandwich one afternoon and looked inside to find just a leaf of spinach. That was all.
Was it Kafka who learned about America by reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin...
Kafka who said, "I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic."

Mr. Brautigan's solicitude for the world he lives in and his impatient grasp of essences continue from their clear emergence in this opening passage all the way through an inspired book. Trout Fishing in America is a person, a place, a quality; anything, in fact, the author surrealistically wants it to be. It functions as a nonsense phrase of great power, and the author's spirited faith that he need never explain it is the happy - and only - ground on which we may approach the book.

Most of what's printed in our time is either spiel or bilge. Mr. Brautigan locates his writing on the barricade which the sane mind maintains against spiel and bilge, and here he cavorts with a divine idiocy, thumbing his nose. But he makes it clear that at his immediate disposal is a fund of common sense he does not hesitate to bring into play. He is a kind of Thoreau who cannot keep a straight face.

His prose is handy with apt similes. "Like astigmatism, I made myself at home." His imagination is magnificently nimble. His sense of the ridiculous is delirious, a gift from the gods. "The Lysol sits like another guest on the stuffed furniture, reading a copy of the Chronicle, the Sports Section. It is the only furniture I have ever seen in my life that looks like baby food."

Mr. Brautigan is not a Surrealist, nor yet a fantasist. I would place him among the philosophers, for his central perception is that the world makes very little sense to a man with a plain mind. He has made his will stubborn against the tinsel and whorish fabric of society. He might even claim that he has described the world with a strong measure of accuracy; Lord knows novelists who sound a lot less peculiar than Mr. Brautigan have tampered with their subjects more than he to achieve such astounding fairy tales as the mysteries of Erle Stanley Gardner.

In Watermelon Sugar is a more sober and mysterious work than Trout Fishing in America. Mr. Brautigan calls it a novel, and it satisfies that designation in a very strange and new way. Trout Fishing is a festival, and invites a musical analogy; In Watermelon Sugar is myth, and is closer to the poem than the novel. Both these works show Mr. Brautigan to be one of the most gifted innovators in our literature.


The Hudson Review 23.1
Spring 1970: 158-160


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