Thomas McGuane's review of 'Trout Fishing in America', 'The Pill' and 'In Watermelon Sugar'
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An Optimist Vis-à-Vis the Present

by Thomas McGuane?

"Three books in the manner of their original publication," says the publisher. These are photo-offsets. The original editions were part of the distinguished Writing Series, edited by Donald Allen and published by the Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco. Now "Brautigan" is a fashionable watchword; and this fat volume shows us that, dangerous as it may be to his potent coterie status, he has earned the embarrassment of success.

It is often difficult to recommend Brautigan to an audience accustomed to being regularly bored by whatever apocalyptic surrealist of the week is blocking their drive-way. The usual factional slogans don't seem to help in explaining his magic. It is perhaps easier to make the common reader see it, with his ordinary expectations in fiction. For what is important is that Brautigan's outlandish gift is based in traditional narrative virtues. His dialogue is supernaturally exact; his descriptive concision is the perfect carrier for his extraordinary comic perceptions. Moreover, the books possess a springtime moral emptiness; essentially works of language, they offer no bromides for living.

Trout Fishing in America

The best of these three books is Trout Fishing in America. It is not really interesting to consider whether it is a novel, as it is called. Suffice it to say that it makes any number of rather generous bids for the reader's attention. Its comic apprehensions range with suppleness from some familiar Western yarn styles to something as seductively spaced as Michaux or ((Flann OBrien)|Flann O'Brien). And yet a coherence, perhaps of pitch, allows Brautigan to elaborate the work without the disjunction familiar in the by now orthodox surrealist novel. The book strikes us as altogether serious without offering the familiar heavy-weight tags, the magnum themes which the heavies of big time Am. Lit. never tire of intoning.

Brautigan is conspicuously the performer. To the reader accustomed to novels tiresomely self-contained and scrupulously unsympathetic, he offers shameless fictional show-boating. He is not constantly tripping on the heart of darkness and coming up in maladroit black-humor glee to confirm our worst suspicions. He seems crazy with optimism. Like some widely gifted Rotarian who wants you to come to his town, he seems assured and sincere. Those who are claiming Trout Fishing in America as a classic might base their claims for continuity in exactly this optimism. Gentleness is his obsession, personal and ecological. Stylistically, his American next of kin is Kenneth Patchen; but the sunniness reminds the reader of not only people like Thoreau and W.C. Williams? but the infrequently cited Zane Grey.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster

The poems (The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster) probably ought not to be taken by themselves, but as grace notes temperamentally continuous with the fictions. It is fairest to think of the poems as charming; at their worst, they are self-consciously occasional - camp, cheerful items, full of silliness and misplaced exclamation marks, by now brutally familiar in the hands of Padgett, Berrigan and others. Apparently relaxed in their poetics, they are in fact strenuously à la mode. Therefore, in a talent as heedless of convention as Richard Brautigan's, they disappoint. Without the fictions to refer them to, they would seem to be merely bad poems.

In Watermelon Sugar

In Watermelon Sugar is a relentlessly enigmatic, even ethereal novel; and it cannot be summarized. In setting out its unearthly fictional conventions, it is concrete to the point of a kind of studied anti-selectivity. Through whole pages people talk assiduously of nothing whatever. But very gradually the fiction sets, in a cluster of related effects, quite new in feeling, in some ways the book is reminiscent of Sir Herbert Read's "The Green Child", and though the corollaries are doubtless accidental, Read's crystal universe and Brautigan's land of DEATH seem to poise their weight at the same pitch to reality. The problem is that by restricting himself to an objective parable style, Brautigan has ruled out the strengths that make Trout Fishing in America so energetic and striking. Though In Watermelon Sugar is done with obvious capability, it seems to proceed from a kind of cerebral preoccupation with which Brautigan is not entirely comfortable.

But that is scarcely the main thing. This is an important publication, without the desolating tedium of recent literary "importance". These books are fun to read. By opening yourself to them, you can get all the old fictional good things. Right there in your own unimaginable home you can laugh, tingle, cry and admire. And much of the style lies in Brautigan's speed of delivery.

The New York Times Book Review
February 15, 1970: Section 7: 49

Reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980 (pages 57-74) and Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1973 (pages 44-45).

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