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Neil Schmitz's essay on Brautigan
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Richard Brautigan and the Modern Pastoral

by Neil Schmitz



I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

-- Whitman, Song of Myself

Therefore do I sigh amid this festive music. And besides, dear Edgar, I struggle as with a dream, and fancy that these shapes of our jovial friends are visionary, and their mirth unreal, and that we are not true Lord and Lady of the May. What is the mystery in my heart?

-- Hawthorne, The Maypole of Merrymount


The hero of Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America is its frustrated writer who searches up numerous creeks for the pastoral mode, that lovely pen which will draw the perfect landscape and place him at its idyllic center. When it is found in the penultimate chapter, the writer notes, marveling, that the pen could stroke "wild flowers and dark fins pressed against the paper" but that is not the world revealed in Trout Fishing. His quest for "the bank by the wood" where one is "undisguised and naked," where the elusive trout will yield to his art, takes him instead into a narrative that denies, episode by episode, the form and language of the pastoral. It is not Whitman (whose casual stance is assumed on the book's cover) whom Brautigan resembles in his fiction, but Hawthorne, the cross-purposed and ambivalent Hawthorne of "The Maypole of Merrymount(external link)" and The Blithedale Romance(external link). Even as a desecrated pastoral space, Brautigan's California is never manifest in its thorns and roots, its Typha latfolia, as Wendell Berry's eastern Kentucky is presented, a specific and closely rendered environment in which the writer carefully locates his habitation. It exists as a construction in a suspect language, as a legend, the "gentle life" of iDEATH. In "The Gathering of a Californian," a sketch which appears in Revenge of the Lawn, Brautigan writes: "It's strange that California likes to get her people from every place else and leave what we knew behind and here to California we are gathered as if energy itself, the shadow of that metal-eating flower, had summoned us away from other lives and now to do the California until the very end like the Taj Mahal in the shape of a parking meter." It is the message of the pastoral, the summoning power of the myth, that fascinates him: California as the "metal-eating flower" drawing her believers to a wilderness of freeways, to the Wrecking Yard where trout fishing in America, the "green thought," is ultimately realized, at once beautifully true and horribly false.

Like Hawthorne, then, Brautigan does not write within the pastoral mode as an advocate of its vision. Moved by the same ironic pessimism, but without the heavy rhetorical presence Hawthorne imposes on his fiction, Brautigan relates his narratives always in the terms of the myth they impart, subtly turning them (by implying what is not seen or said) to reveal the confinement of their discourse. He is par excellence the "reader of myths" whom Roland Barthes describes at length in Mythologies, the interpreter who reads the "mythical signifier" (trout fishing in America, iDEATH, the Library) as an "inextricable whole made of meaning and form."1 Yet that reading is ironic, as I have argued, disclosed through the sensibility of the literal "myth-consumer," Brautigan himself, the self-dramatized refugee from Oregon whose beguiling face is amiably posed on the covers of his most significant fiction.

All of his narrators want to be sensuous and contemplative Adams in touch with themselves and smiling Eves, to live translucent lives in the golden haze of iDEATH, the magical province In Watermelon Sugar scrupulously delimits, but events betray them. Their ingenious discourse, like Huck Finn's, calls constant attention to the realities muffled in their language. In The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966, the narrator rigorously sustains, through corruption and catastrophe, his gentle and even tone — so resilient in his innocence, so obstinate in his detachment, as to evince finally a sense of evil. But because his fiction is told in the first person by an I whose discourse has remained relatively consistent in manner, Brautigan is often read as though he were this speaker, this voice idling in lyrical reverie. Jack Clayton's? essay in the New American Review, 11 (1971), "Richard Brautigan: The Politics of Woodstock" (pp. 56-68), is exemplary. Lamenting the absence of political awareness in Trout Fishing, Clayton focuses finally on the bucolic couple represented on its cover. "They reflect the nostalgia," he writes, "which permeates this book: for a simpler, more human, pre-industrial America." If Brautigan "knows it's gone," he has nonetheless "created a pastoral which cannot be a viable social future." What is wrong, then, in Brautigan's fiction is that, like the music of the Beatles, it "gives people the assurance that they can be free and part of a community of free people, now." Brautigan himself provides an acerbic explication of this cover that concentrates on the figure of Benjamin Franklin. He looks past the pseudo-rustic couple in the foreground, past his own image, to the blurred image of the statue looming behind them. In this square, under Franklin's statue with its four-cornered salute: Welcome, poor people open up their charity sandwiches to see what they "are all about" (TFA, p.2). One sandwich is unwrapped and it discloses a single stark leaf of spinach. Brautigan then quotes Kafka, Kafka who learned about America by reading Franklin's autobiography: "I like the Americans because they are so healthy and optimistic" (TFA, p.2). Yet for Clayton, who reads Brautigan in a somewhat similar fashion, Trout Fishing "is still the book of a sub-culture, of a WE who are so different from bourgeois expectations as not to need explanations about our way of life".

Even in his early fiction, notably A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan's view of the sub-culture, of the charismatic Lee Mellon, is already dubious. There at the rim of the continent, Big Sur, at the farthest extent of his retreat from the city, "poleaxed by dope" (CG, p.155), Jesse confronts the ultimate wall of the ocean. His stoned intransitive gaze constitutes the ending ("186,000 endings per second" (CG, p. 160)) while overhead, in five successive frames, a seagull swoops in swift purposive freedom. Trout Fishing and the two narratives to which I will turn first, The Abortion and In Watermelon Sugar, emerge from that perspective. Narcoticized, Jesse strives unsuccessfully to make love, he wanders about, he winds down to a zero-degree existence: "Nothing happened for a long time" (CG, p. 157). Stasis, the rapt and timeless state of pure being presumably attained at the center of the pastoral idyll, is critically rendered in The Abortion and In Watermelon Sugar. Both books, told by writers who are myth-entranced, clarify thematically and stylistically the complex issues undertaken in Trout Fishing. Far from being nostalgic evocations of the pastoral past, they unwrap the pastoral mode and disclose inside not transcendence, but stasis — blindness and silence. "Vida was right when she said that I would become a hero in Berkeley" (TA, p.226), the writer declares at the ambivalent close of The Abortion.

The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966


When Vida (conspicuously named) comes into the writer's small stale garden of misfit and occasional writings, she brings the book of knowledge that will destroy his library life. Her coat is thrown open and the text seductively presented: "I wrote this book to tell how horrible physical beauty is, the full terror of it" (TA, p.46). He bravely responds: "This body is you and you'd better get used to it because this is all she wrote for this world and you can't hide from yourself" (TA, p.67). On that maudlin note Brautigan's historical romance begins. The writer has been drowsing among minor emotions, withdrawn from the world, living the life of the fifties, collecting quiet despairs. Vida is no less than Eve the Deliverer and Lilith the Destroyer, death in life, an impressive force (her voluptuous beauty has already caused one fatal car accident and a near suicide) which he appeases first with a candy bar, a Milky Way, and then embraces with all the adolescent tendresse of a Rod McKuen. "Her toes," he relates, "were the cutest pebbles I have ever seen" (TA, p.64). Once he succumbs — "I've never slept with a librarian before" (TA, p.56), she demurs — he will lose forever the solipsistic pleasures of his library, this place which is nothing more than the attitude of his imagination, and be forced to join the decade, history itself, the vivid Berkeley of the sixties. That much is certain. What is less certain is the quality of his new life after the fortunate fall. One new life at least, wholly realized, is flushed down a toilet in Tijuana. Some signs of how intricately ramified that particular event is in the novel are tucked ingeniously into one of the early chapters. Shortly after they make love a number of auspicious books are delivered to the library: Vietnam Victory, The Need for Legalized Abortion, and a volume by one Rod Keen, a sewer worker, entitled It's the Queen of Darkness, Pal. Brautigan's ironic presence in his fiction is rarely so visible.

Allegorical signs bristling with significance are everywhere in the narrative. Not only is the library "timed perfectly," the present tense of a text, its mythopoeic origin is also specifically underlined: "Before the library came to San Francisco, it was in St. Louis for awhile, then in New York for a long time. There are a lot of Dutch books somewhere" (TA, p.35). Yet the allegory does not read in the expected fashion, its references are confused, and the writer's proclamation of his heroism (his movement from mere reading, the storing of stories, to the creative act of writing) is profoundly flawed. In the library the writer sustains an Adamic existence remote from the fallen world that intrudes each time a book is brought. He is a keeper of forms who simply records the new additions. Adam as a mild, slightly stale clerk whose innocence is maintained at the cost of significant experience. For the most part the storytellers are of the type Sherwood Anderson called "grotesques" in Winesburg, Ohio; their stories are like his "little twisted apples." One such storyteller is Brautigan who brings a book called Moose; another is Rod Keen. the writer doggedly catalogues them, and then they are lost, ultimately carted off to the caves Foster tends in northern California. No one, it seems, comes to the library to read. It is, in effect, a dead-letter office. Typically the writer does not acknowledge that tragic aspect of his duties: all this literature briefly coalescing as an entry and then sinking underground, forgotten and unread. Even the introduction of Vida, the Queen of Darkness, does not at first significantly alter the condition of the writer's stasis, his absorption in the caretaking of this stultifying garden. He continues to see the world through the "high arched windows" of his bookish life: trees that "spread their branches like paste against the glass" /TA, p. 35), a garage across the street with its single big word in blue, GULF, and Vida, "somebody inside of her looking out as if her body were a castle and a princess lived inside" (TA, p. 42). He sees, that is, without discerning. The gulf outside remains a mute sign, not the void glimpsed by Melville's Bartleby during his tour as the librarian of dead letters. The library fits down around the writer like a bell jar. Then, as Vida puts it, "our bodies got us" (TA, p. 72). The abortion thrusts him outside into the confusing and clamorous world. once there he will not be able to get back inside. When he returns from Tijuana a woman has taken his place and stands angrily behind the library's locked door, refusing him entry. To this extent Brautigan's allegory holds to its track, but within the realized mythos are hosts of nagging questions: what has been learned, what gained, what lost?

Vida's conception precipitates the writer not only into the world, into time, but also into the fiction he has hitherto only collected. He becomes one of those "grotesques" whose queer tales and lives fill the shelves of the library. And it is in this translation, the writer writing as both subject and object, the book brought to our library, that Brautigan's ironic distance is most telling. For the writing undergoes a progressive chastening of its style. If in the midst of their idyllic lovemaking a chapter-heading forebodingly presents itself: "Counting towards Tijuana," the idyll is nonetheless rendered in an indulgent, often flowery, consistently sentimental prose. Vida is "so beautiful that the advertising people would have made her into a national park if they could have gotten their hands on her." She is undressed with lavish epithets. The writer does not want his "first kiss to have attached to it the slightest gesture or flower of the meat market" (TA, p. 59). All of this is savagely undercut in the Tijuana chapters where Vida once more bears her splendid body. This time there is no adulation. "'Take off your clothes,' the girl said. 'And put this on.'" Then the doctor said something in Spanish and the boy answered in Spanish and the girl said, "'please. Now put your legs up. That's it. Good. Thank you'" (TA, p. 178). In the journey from San Francisco to Mexico the reader is lifted from the stylistic province of Rod McKuen's Listen to the Warm and transported to the stark world of Hemingway's prose in In Our Time.

The Tijuana chapters illuminate the entire narrative. Gone is the saccharine cuteness of the writer's tropes, his clever phrases, and in their place is a spare reportorial discourse sharpened and defined by the brutalizing specifics of a tragic experience. Yet the singular power of this section derives its force not just from Brautigan's remarkable economy of word and effect, but also from the implied judgment that informs the altered style. "From the moment that they truly loved," Hawthorne writes of his Lord and Lady of the May, "they subjected themselves to earth's doom of care and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no more home at Merrymount." That is precisely what happens to Brautigan's lovers in their library except that here the intelligence which admits tragedy does not intrude. As they leave for Tijuana the writer suddenly, with indefatigable optimism, declares: "I think we have the power to transform our lives with brand-new instantaneous rituals that we calmly act out when something hard comes up that we must do (TA, p. 109). A declaration horribly echoed by the Mexican abortionist: "No pain and clean, all clean, no pain. Don't worry. No pain and clean. Nothing left." (TA, p. 175). The abortion, too, is a transformation, but a transformation executed in bad faith, done as though it were not what it is, a killing. Brautigan is not, of course, arguing the Roman Catholic position, but clearly the reality of death is blocked by the principals that who refuse to concede the change it creates in their lives. The decision to have an abortion is reached casually; Foster sends them off as though it were a lark, and it is only in Tijuana that their smiles begin to shrivel, their attempts to "calmly act out" other rituals dismally fail. As the operation proceeds, the presence of pain, of death, presses upon the writer's numbed sensibility, forces its way through his studied coolness, and makes his language strikingly lucid. He must sit through three abortions, none of which is experienced as a real event happening. Yet that event occurs. Nothing is seen, everything is heard:

Everything was very quiet for a moment or so in the operating room. I felt the dark cool of the doctor's office on my body like the hand of some other kind of doctor.

"Honey?" the doctor said. "Honey?"

Then the doctor said something in Spanish to the boy and the boy answered him in something metallic, surgical. The doctor used the thing that was metallic and surgical and gave it back to the boy who have him something else that was metallic and surgical.

Everything was either quiet or metallic and surgical in there for awhile. (TA, pp. 178-179)

And when the three abortions, each meticulously heard by the writer, are completed, the doctor repairs to his kitchen for lunch, a glimpsed steak. Shortly thereafter, Book 6, "The Hero," begins.

The ordeal by fire and water is passed (the sterilizing of forceps, the flushing of a foetus), and the writer flies off with his rescued maiden to a new life in Berkeley. If A Confederate General ends capriciously with Brautigan seemingly aroused to his thematic possibilities only at the last moment, in The Abortion he is firmly in control of his material. The writer resumes his diffident narration in Book 6; the seared consciousness of the Tijuana chapters reverts to its prelapsarian mode of perception. If the mythos Brautigan ironically creates in The Abortion is that of the Fall (The Garden itself is an accursed place), then the writer in his account misses the meaning of his expulsion. Nor does he, for that matter, ever recognize, as Vida does from the start, the menace of his library life, its suffocating equanimity. On his return, when he finds the library closed to him, he cries out "in the wilderness" that there "must be a mistake." Vida is "laughing like hell,'' doing a dance with Foster on the sidewalk. "You've just been fired," she tells the writer. "You're going to have to live like a normal human being" (TA, p. 223). In Berkeley Vida takes a job as a topless dancer, Foster works for Bethlehem Steel equipping aircraft carriers, and the writer sits at a table near Sather Gate, the bell jar closed down once more upon him. 0f the students, "petals of a thousand colored flower," he notes "the joy of their intellectual perfume and the political rallies they hold at noon on the steps of Sproul Hall" (TA, p. 226). The Free Speech Movement is barely mentioned, but this is 1966, not 1964, and to a large extent that historical romance, that explosion of vitality, that "new life" is also over, aborted. The writer has come alive for naught. There is finally neither substantial nor figurative issue in his narrative which simply curves back to report a bland existence not unlike his former library life. Somewhere a connection has been missed, a synapse not traversed. If innocence has been lost, the writer has evaded the responsibilities attendant upon that loss, and in so doing, in not seeing, he negates himself as the hero of his romance, this allegorical tale within an allegorical tale. With its imposed happy ending, his allegory fails, not Brautigan's. The ambiguous Vida, now a topless dancer, has in effect the last cryptic word. It is she who has done everything, who has forced him into the world. "Vida was right," he reports, "when she said that I would become a hero in Berkeley" (TA, p. 226).

In Watermelon Sugar


In Watermelon Sugar is so similar in theme and judgment, if not in voice, that it seems a companion piece. Its speaker is also a writer, a gentle character seemingly content with himself who has then to deal with a loaded event, an occasion of inexplicable pain. Tony Tanner's suggestion in City of Words that the narrative is "too simpleminded," a "pastoral dream in which the dominance of fantasy and imagination over the Forgotten Works and the wrecking yard is perhaps too effortlessly achieved,"2 misses entirely the closely packed density of its simple tone. Brautigan intrudes in The Abortion; his signature repeatedly appears almost like a little flag warning of the ironies present in his prose. With one notable exception, the language of In Watermelon Sugar is impenetrable, intact. Yet if it is a fantasy set in some idyllic future tense, a post-holocaustal world, In Watermelon Sugar is nonetheless saturated with history and like The Abortion resonates with literary echoes. It invokes all the icons of our pastoral tradition: the shack in the hills, strolling solitary figures, a slumbering rural village (with its Doc Edwards), felicitous divisions of labor (congenial bosses, happy workers), healthy Paulines cooking up hearty stews, the schoolmaster leading his pupils into a meadow to study nature. iDEATH is above all a mythological language composed of those clear and immediate signs which constitute (to use Barthes's term) an "interpellant speech," an appeal for a set response. How lovely this is, how like a Currier & Ives print! But there is also the presence of another mythological language, a different system of signs, a different literary tradition. For outside iDEATH is a mute plenum filled with the nameless: the Forgotten Works. Margaret's forays into that lexical zone are quite properly recognized as a threat. What she brings back is never expressed. And what that means is simply this; not all the writer's deeds can he done in watermelon sugar.

Thus Brautigan looms ironically on his cover, the "good gray poet," and in the chapter, "My Name?," has his writer assume (somewhat vaingloriously) the amorphous self Whitman announces in Leaves of Grass. Still earlier he reminds us that, "We call everything a river here" (IWS, p. 2). The identity his figure takes seems that of an elder Huck Finn (who still has trouble sleeping at night) restlessly suspended in the contemplative Walt Whitman of "Song of Myself." That is, he is both an intention, Whitman's envisioned self, and a reality, Huck caught in a beautiful and implacable current. This interfusion of pastoral perspectives. Whitman's vision of a liberated community of equals each exploring his own particular genius and Mark Twain's tragic knowledge of the menace both within and without such communities, generates the underlying tension in the narrative, the pervasive angst nestled in the writer's voice. "Wherever you are, we must do the best we can," he begins; "It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar." Then, elliptically he adds: "I hope this works out" (IWS, p. 1). But perhaps the most striking of all the parallels implicit in the book refers neither to Whitman nor Mark Twain.

A good part of In Watermelon Sugar was written in Bolinas?, a small coastal community in northern California as remote from the Oakland-San Francisco complex as Brook Farm was from nineteenth-century Boston. iDEATH occupies a familiar landscape. And while Bolinas is not specifically organized as a socialistic commune, it does in some sense represent a collective, if only in its shared vision of its difference from contemporary life in the United States. In any event, the town sheds a bucolic ambiance and the people who live in it: artists, academicians, dropouts, the aboriginal townspeople, zealously guard that ambiance. "There's a delicate balance in iDEATH," the writer asserts. "It suits us" (IWS, p. 1). In Watermelon Sugar proposes this balance at every turn: the balance between the communal and private lives of its citizens, between technology and primitivism, and most importantly the putative equipoise that is sustained between the contrary instincts of life and death. Yet for all that, the writer is haunted. As he meanders through the narrative, his discourse seemingly drifting from experience to experience, he reveals simultaneously an abiding malaise. He writes fitfully, sculpts unsatisfactorily, radiates his anonymity, his loneliness. And when pushed by Pauline to explain the painful triangle that has strangely formed, the writer responds by speaking from the imaginative center of Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. "The heart is something else," he declares. "Nobody knows what's going to happen" (IWS, p. 27). Spurned like Zenobia, Margaret shares her fate. And like Hollingsworth, though without his mania, the writer impassively witnesses her suicide in the Statue of Mirrors.

Margaret's gradual exclusion from iDEATH is due not to her association with the psychopathic inBOIL (whose character Pauline distils in a single curt sentence: "You're an asshole."), but stems rather from the fact that she has developed an illicit passion, a passion for archaeology. She has come to like digging things up, retrieving artifacts from the piles of refuse in Forgotten Works. What the writer despises is not the historical object she recovers but the activity, the activity of exploration, Margaret's interest in what is out there. When the past is remembered in iDEATH it is typically sheathed in fables, finished. The social institutions of the historical world are recalled as tigers, repressively tolerant tigers who spoke like liberals and ate like fascists. The trauma of having experienced them is thus encapsulated in myth and thrust beyond the reach of analysis. Nothing more than what is in the story in those terms is to be said of them. Margaret assigns no particular value to the things she brings back from Forgotten Works — they are at best curiosities — but in going there, in digging them up, exploring that space, she disturbs iDEATH's delicate balance by threatening the sufficiency of its language. When Fred finds an "it" in the woods, he asks the writer what "it" is. The writer is equally puzzled by "it" and advises Fred to ask the local patriarch, Charley. But as time passes, "it" and the question are forgotten. In her shack Margaret is stockpiling "it," creating a mound of the undefined, things that resist the linguistic alembic of watermelon sugar. One comes back to that skewed line in the book's opening passage: "Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out" (IWS, p. 1). To what does "this" refer? To everything that is the case in his narrative, his language. Yet the hesitation undermines his stated dependence and throws the efficacy of his subtle and pliable medium, watermelon sugar, into doubt.

It is through this ellipsis, this sudden move from the indicative to the subjunctive, that all the Hawthornian irony flows. As a poetic language watermelon sugar does not penetrate or manifest the thing-in-itself. Instead it coats experience, covers it like a syrup. There is a passage in Mythologies concerning the deforming power of social myth which admirably describes the representational effect of watermelon sugar. "In passing from history to nature," Barthes writes, "myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradiction because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves." Yet to read the myth critically is to see at once its distortion, the historical complexities which the "evident" negates in its gloss. In Watermelon Sugar discloses that distortion with great refinement. Although she is spoken about, Margaret is not said. She slips through the narrative toward her final dismissal as an "it." In her first appearance, approaching the writer's shack (where she is refused entry), Margaret is already generalized, exiled as a "they." "I did not acknowledge their knocking because I wasn't interested," the writer confesses. "I did not want to see them" (IWS, p. 3). The pronoun not only cuts her off, it also limits the writer in his field of vision — he will see only that which is congenial (Pauline) and undemanding. Like Huck Finn's, his discourse is filled with signs of its incompletion and forces us to look beyond its narrow focus to what is unspoken in the rendered experience. Brautigan contrasts iDEATH with the expanse of the Forgotten Works much as Mark Twain opposes life on the raft with the inescapable shore. And in that double vision, again like Mark Twain whose scrutiny in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is at length overwhelming in its pessimism, Brautigan inexorably makes Hawthornes of his readers.

What is not seen in The Abortion — violent death — is not said in In Watermelon Sugar. Margaret's curiosity is the first step toward wisdom, knowledge of the Other, but wisdom in that sense is destructive of the innocence the writer strives to sustain. Ever so gently, the "gentle life" reconstructed in iDEATH tyrannizes in its refusal to name what is strange or unlike its style. Watermelon sugar, this universal language, can only wallow in the evident. "I'd hate to think it was my fault," Pauline remarks of Margaret's suicide. "Don't," the writer replies (IWS, p. 122). Margaret's room is bricked up with "watermelon bricks made from black, soundless sugar." Silence will "seal off the forgotten things forever" (IWS, p. 126). The static life of the pastoral idyll is thus resumed. Margaret is entombed, mythicized, illumined with foxfire. The inhabitants of iDEATH, having dealt with death in their fashion, gather for a dance. "The musicians were poised with their instruments. They were ready to go. It would only be a few seconds now, I wrote" (IWS, p. 138). So In Watermelon Sugar ends, "perfectly timed" like the library in The Abortion, the timeless time of Keats' urn. The narrative curves back to the beginning. Brautigan gives to the pastoral myth all its objectives in fiction: the denial of history, its passion for loveliness (all those exquisite suns), its desire to represent the normative life, the 'natural' way. And yet it is somehow wrong, this perfected world. The balance that suits them also stylizes them and the result is a disfiguring of their humanity.

Trout Fishing in America


Yet the careful realization of these narratives — both glazed in mythical speech, told by a yearning pastoral voice — depends on the insight gained in Trout Fishing, Brautigan's understanding that myth, as Barthes puts it, "has an imperative, buttonholing character... it is I whom it has come to seek. It is turned toward me. I am subjected to its intentional force, it summons me to receive its expansive ambiguity" (p. 124). Trout Fishing is about that confrontation, Brautigan's tragicomical reading of the portentous myth imposed on him. The writer does not invent Trout Fishing in America or concoct its meaning; he finds it, this pastoral concept, brutalized as mere statement in the crush of history ("Used Trout Stream for Sale," TFA, p. 104) and yet still seeking quixotically to restore itself mythically in the writer's imagination as a verity, the experience it is not. Brautigan thus reads his mythical phrase in Barthes's broad sense, not as an object, a story or tale, but as a semiological system, a mode of signification which appropriates the meaning of primary language and deforms it to serve a concept. Hence mythological language (or mythical speech) is language "stolen and restored." The Basque chalet stolen from its Spanish environment and restored in a crowded Parisian street is still a Basque chalet, but the historical meaning of its architecture, the reason for its eaves, its asymmetrical roof and external stairs is drained off, and what remains is its mythical expression, its "basquity." Trout Fishing in America, as we have seen, begins by remembering its existence at the plane of primary language, people in "three-cornered hats" fishing at sunrise. It was then direct experience, trout fishing in the lower case, a function reported in a transitive sentence. Deprived of its organic predicate, streams, and its physical object, trout, it becomes a concert, the object of an intensely motivated quest which alters completely the simplicity of its original meaning. When the anthropomorphized phrase now speaks, it speaks like the iconic Louie Armstrong, the embodiment of Dixieland Jazz, an idiom hardened into a concept: bulging eyes, popping sweat, thick lips, hot licks. Yet that Armstrong and the music of which he is the veritable sign has had another meaning, a meaning intricately bound to time and place. Thinking of Lewis and Clark as it plays with the writer's child (it has given her some colored rocks), Trout Fishing in America does not understand the writer's poetic fusion of the Missouri River and a Deanna Durbin movie. What it does understand is the fish that strikes and then eludes the writer's snare.

The two parts of "Knock on Wood," the section in which the narrative proper begins, introduce the myth's double system, these two planes of signification (one empty, the other full) across which Brautigan constantly moves, rendering the whole myth in all its connotative and politicized mass. Told of trout fishing in America by his stepfather, who describes trout as a national resource, the writer naively confuses them with steel, "a steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings, trains and tunnels" (TFA, p. 3). The recognition is precocious. For mythical speech indeed uses trout fishing in America as raw material, raw meaning to be exploited and transformed into a concept, a product. Later in the narrative the writer finds campgrounds filled with consumers of that product and recognizes the Mayor of the Twentieth Century as the exemplary politician (Lyndon Baines Johnson riding the ranch trail) who "wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night" (TFA, p. 48). In Part Two of "Knock on Wood," still a child, the writer goes looking for the primal experience (carrying strings, a pin for a hook, some bread for bait) and finds only streets, no streams, in Portland. He discovers the emptiness of the signifier, the sentence shriveled into a fossilized phrase. "I ended up by being my own trout and eating the slice of bread myself" (TFA, p. 5). The reply of Trout Fishing in America is sympathetic though prosaic: "There was nothing I could do. I couldn't change a flight of stairs into a creek (TFA, p. 5). Yet this is its own fate: to be continually and diversely changed. to become everyone's myth of the natural act, the writer's myth, the politician's myth, to become the concept that joins Ishmaels on motorcycles and suburban families pulling luxurious trailers in the same remorseless hunt. So the phrase exists, communicating itself to the writer always in its two phases of signification, what it was and what it is, a single character speaking two ways at once. The writer responds by moving back and forth in his narrative, telling stories about actual trout fishing in America and anecdotes that involve the mythic concept of Trout Fishing in America, recognizing the distinction and yet aware that to tell one is to tell the other.

Trout Fishing is thus at once a sustained criticism of the myth and a lyrical confession of its attractive values. To fish for trout, Brautigan knows, is to cast a lure like Thoreau (up into the pale) and handle the strike like Hemingway?. One steps into the stream and inescapably enters the current of American literature. The myth readily yields abundant images: Nick Adams easing his war-wounded spirit in "The Big Two-Hearted River," Thoreau fishing at night on Walden Pond, Huck and Jim pulling in catfish as they float upon the Mississippi, Emerson crossing the "bare common," Whitman "undisguised and naked" by the bank in the wood. And beyond these are the banal public images found in calendar art, in promotional photography and the mass media — the essential fisherman in all his sturdy individualism. "In the woods, too, a man casts off his years," Emerson writes in Nature, "as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of his life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth." If in the hands of the agency writer that desire becomes a lust, the language remains constant. Indeed the catholicity of the myth is something of a comic horror in Trout Fishing. There is no escape from its signifying presence, its multifarious appeal to that passion for pastoral simplicity, the natural life in the woods. Yet the modern avatar of the mythopoeic Trout Fishing in America, Emerson's "perpetual youth," is Trout Fishing in America Shorty, the hero reduced to a "legless, screaming middle-aged wino." And the landscape in which the myth radiates its luminous images is the bleak terrain of the trampled West. Pushing his way into its recesses, hunting streams, the writer finds creeks that are for the most part geriatric affairs, streams burdened and scarred by human usage. On Paradise Creek a "huge monument" to the Civilian Conservation Corps (which desecrates as it conserves) exerts its obtrusive presence. Graveyard Creek flows between cemeteries that describe the distance between rich and poor in the United States. Salt Creek has been poisoned along its trail with cyanide capsules put out for coyotes. Ultimately the creeks assume a character not unlike that of the tramps and elderly derelicts languishing about in the book's city scenes. In San Francisco the writer and his friends contemplate sending Trout Fishing in America Shorty (the myth degraded) to the writer who seems most capable of handling him, Nelson Algren?, and what the proposal signifies is merely the fact that all the creeks have become streets. The national parks are flophouses where the dead man's bed, his tent-space, is quickly taken. The wilderness is Algren's world. Making love beside one creek (which has been carelessly dammed and in which many dead trout are floating), the writer hurriedly withdraws in a precipitous orgasm and casts his sperm into the pool where, congealed, it hangs in the green scum beside the dead fish. The profanation is complete. Yet what gives these episodes their particular emotion is the abiding presence of Trout Fishing in America, the phrase that remains alive in the writer's imagination. This was not to be, the myth protests, this was not to be, an implicit outcry which Brautigan at length treats with considerable asperity.

This judgment occurs in "The Cleveland Wrecking Yard?," the section in which a trout stream is packaged in its parts and sold by the foot. Here the myth has become wholly conceptual (artificial trout streams are a commodity), completely divorced from its origin in nature, in time and place, and here logically it ought simply to explode in the grossness of its pretence. Trout fishing is extinct in the Wrecking Yard, this warehouse of goods, as dead as it is in most rivers and streams. Yet it is precisely here, as the writer moves through the store, tenderly examining the stream in its several displayed aspects, not at all horrified, that the myth is most intensely realized in Trout Fishing. For Brautigan recognizes that Trout Fishing in America does not end in the Wrecking Yard but rather begins there, begins as it did in Portland when the boy could find neither streams nor trout in his forest of houses. It is the train chewing its way through Thoreau's woods, the steamboat churning over the raft, that animates and sustains the pastoral vision. It is the Machine that creates the Garden. Whenever and wherever trout fishing in America is ruined, falls silent, there Trout Fishing in America comes alive and begins to speak. Having come the length of his narrative, with the long ugly perspective of modern America behind him, the writer picks up a gold-nibbed pen: "I thought to myself what a lovely nib trout fishing in America would make with a stroke of cool green trees along the river's shore, wild flowers and dark fins pressed against the paper" (TFA, p. 110).

Yet this is not Brautigan's style in Trout Fishing. Brautigan's style parodies the mythical speech of pastoralism, those strokes of "cool green trees along the river's shore" (TFA, p. 110). When summer ducks rise in flight along Paradise Creek, the mallards have a train of "Rainier Ale-like offspring." A woodcock is identified à la Duchamp: "He had a long bill like putting a fire hydrant into a pencil sharpener, then pasting it onto a bird and letting the bird fly away in front of me with this thing on its face for no other purpose than to amaze me" (TFA, P. 49). The narrow green aisle of one creek is like "12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out" (TFA, p. 55). The jarring effect of the urban image affixed to the bucolic object describes not only the writer's sense of his alienation in the woods, his intrusion, but also the mutilated condition of the place, a wilderness that is elsewhere presented as an outhouse with its door ripped open. Coming upon the signs that warn of the cyanide capsules at Salt Creek, the writer reflects on the case of Caryl Chessman and the issue of state murder — the murder of Chessman, coyotes, Salt Creek, the wilderness itself. Yet the text remains free of polemical accusations. Brautigan does not take up the myth with its "cool green trees" and use it as a socio-political club. Nor does he seem interested in the didactic lyricism of a Richard Grossinger who tells us in Solar Journal that the "marine biosphere consists of phytoplanktonic diatoms and dinoflagellates at the autotrophic level." Instead he keeps aloof, outside the myth, and in the drollery of his sophisticated language deflates its posturing rhetoric. In the metropolitan bowels of New York, Trout Fishing in America yearns for the ecological purity of Alaska. For the writer all such expeditions into the country lead inevitably back to San Francisco and the stony presence of Benjamin Franklin, the unmoved center of Trout Fishing. Unlike the writers who narrate The Abortion and In Watermelon Sugar, this writer is very close to Brautigan's voice. What exists in history, things as they are — the leaf spinach in the poor man's sandwich, the dead trout in the spoiled creek — emerge in Trout Fishing with a power the myth can neither allay nor abstract.

Near the close of the book Brautigan returns to the question of his method, quoting Ashley Montagu and then Marston Bates. Eskimos have "no single word" for ice, Montagu reports, and Bates informs us that only with writing, with self-consciousness, does language deposit fossils. The tragic descent of trout fishing in America into Trout Fishing in America, the fatal imprinting of its trace in mythical speech, is herein concisely stated. "Expressing a human need," Brautigan concludes, posting his own sign, "I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word mayonnaise" (TFA, p. 111). Trout Fishing ends with the word "mayonaise." A comically banal letter mourns "the passing of Mr. Good" who "has lived a good life and... gone to a better place" (TFA, p. 112). These are voices in Brautigan's fiction, a point of view not necessarily his own, and they bungle "mayonnaise." So instructed, one can then turn back to the "simple-minded" discourse of In Watermelon Sugar and the lulling style of The Abortion.

Far from being the self-indulgent poet of the counter-culture, as Clayton would read him, or the writer of "lexical caprices," as Tanner suggests, Brautigan is instead an ironist critically examining the myths and language of the pastoral sensibility that reappeared in the sixties. Yet because he writes with such seductive persuasion as Mr. Good from within that sensibility (keeping his own balance), he is often misread and the clarity of his thought overlooked. In those "close tolerances" of contemporary life Donald Barthelme describes so admirably in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, and City Life, language is always the first casualty. And where Barthelme has to a large extent made himself a master of the neutral tone of technological languages juxtaposing jargons in his writing with wicked ingenuity, making them speak, after all, what they strive to hide or distort, so Brautigan in his writing has been similarly deft in manifesting what lies unspoken and unseen in the mythic speech of his Californians. The setting of the modern pastoral is irrevocably the city it seeks to deny, the place where Trout Fishing in America (Brautigan himself) stands smiling under the surveillance of Benjamin Franklin.


Modern Fiction Studies 19,1
Spring 1973



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