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Stephen Schneck's review of 'Trout Fishing in America'
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Review of Trout Fishing in America

by Stephen Schneck?

"There are seductions that should be in the Smithsonian Institute, right next to the Spirit of St. Louis," writes the author of this slim volume of curious but unquestionably authentic Americana. I don't know exactly which particular seductions Mr. Brautigan has in mind, but I would include certain artifacts, certain literary seductions, certain shining examples of what used to be referred to with something like national pride as American ingenuity; an admirable trait in more innocent times, an ominous facility in America today.

All the more reason for Mr. Brautigan's second book (his first, A Confederate General From Big Sur, published two years ago by Grove Press, brought him the usual critical acclaim and public indifference) to secure him a small niche in the hearts of his literate countrymen, for Brautigan has written a book that qualifies as a 100 per cent all-American seduction, along with such ponderous seductions as Coca-Cola, the Ford-in-your-Future, and that wonderful American philosophical exercise, trout fishing, in all its natural and supernatural glory.

Neither this abstraction nor Mr. Brautigan's variations on the abstract theme lend themselves to summation. Probably the most incisive and lucid comment on this breath of fresh air was contained in the rejection slip that Brautigan's agent received from Viking Press, thoughtfully reprinted on the book's back cover. This brief note speaks volumes, which we gratefully lift and quote:

Mr. Brautigan submitted a book to us in 1962 called Trout Fishing in America. I gather from the reports that it was not about trout fishing.
One wonders whether the reports mention the salient fact that Mr. Brautigan is a bona-fide American humorist, sure as God made little green apples and wooden Indians and publishers.

Previous to Brautigan, I was under the impression that our breed of home-grown humorists was exhausted, the comic vein played out in an America that isn't really very funny; or rather, in an America that is very, very funny. A real scream: black laughter, insane mirth, comic hysteria — these are the enemies of true humor, a national relic, almost always out of print.

American humor is essentially a sly, provincial (even when urban), epigrammatic cracker-barrel & campfire kind of comedy. The minstrel show and the tall tale are the heart and soul of this indigenous mirth which, like the Spirit of St. Louis, is one of the things in America that Americans need not be ashamed of. And I am not being facetious. There are many nations whose comic propensities are barbaric and infantile, and terribly offensive. Native wit has long been recognized as a key to a national character. By their laughter you shall know them, and know their secret hearts...

Our comic talents depend less upon language and technique than upon the untutored rural tradition of the eccentric vision and the absurd juxtaposition of reason and extremism. Authentic American humor (as opposed to the commercial, prefabricated variety) has its roots in the rich American soil. Here we grow things bigger, faster, better than anyone, anywhere else. And our humor is, largely, derived from a major American vice, exaggeration. The Fish Story is probably the purest form of American wit: farce is our reality and our métier.

This license for the absurd has produced the paranoid-fantasists, the Terry Southerns?, and the sophists like Albee and Pynchon (excellent writers, agonized pessimists) who play with words because the pavement is so hard and the terra so remote. Mr. Brautigan is funnier than these poor literates, these joke makers and gag writers; he is faster than Peter de Vries?, he's faster than Congress, as wry as Ring Lardner, and as outrageous, though less bizarre than the last American humorist, Nathanael West.

As the inventor of a metaphorical hook constructed with American know-how to catch the slippery American hubris, Brautigan fishes in and out of context, casting his unassuming lure in the waters, in the parks, in the mystery of America, at a time when fish and fishermen alike are either crazed or comatose: frozen, frightened nearly out of their American wits.

Anyone who has tried can tell you that this American continent is not an easy place to locate, or state of mind to elucidate. There is no describing us, no explaining us: no one has such scope, no one is so perceptive.

It is no good being clever if you are not also tender. And there is no reason to make readers laugh unless you also bring tears to their eyes. Only a true patriot can successfully make fun of America. At a time when our most gifted authors are dedicated to outdoing each other in apocalyptic metaphors and horrific allegories, a visionary and enthusiast like Brautigan is especially welcome.

There is more to America than the blood on our hands and egg on our face; There is more to this continent than neon wilderness and city jungles and polluted rivers, bulldozed mountains, denuded forests. and dust bowls, and all the other abject failures that stand for decline, depression and the end of our red, white and star-spangled blue world.

There's something more, something that keeps one from completely disassociating himself from the tragedy that is brewing in teakettles and on college campuses, in cities, suburbias and other nightmares throughout the nation. We search for something more than the tight face, the fat belly, the beer can litter and plastic waste. We search for America under the cement and foam rubber. We search for those fruited plains beneath the parking lots and subdivided eyesores. We seem to have lost our country somewhere between the east coast and the west, and my appreciation of Mr. Brautigan stems from the fact that he has rediscovered America, if only for 112 pages.

To maintain that Trout Fishing in America is not about trout fishing is to deny reality. Because reality is precisely what Trout Fishing is about. One of Brautigan's most lucid characters, the Kool-Aid Wino, a kind of national holy Everyman whose poverty forces him to dilute his Kool-Aid with twice as much water, and prevents him from adding any sugar or lemon despite the directions on the package, has managed to "create his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it."

The Kool-Aid Wino is a parable in the shape of a shaggy dog story about the optical illusions and heartbreaking deceptions of American poverty. It is very funny and very eloquent. It is the song we must all learn to sing, while a jug band provides the cacophony:

Lost my baby, last my honey Lost my land and I lost my money If I can't be happy, I'm gonna be funny...
I tell you, you never know how much you can take until you've had enough. I used to read most of what my contemporaries wrote and published under the misnomer of "humor." Since we all seem to be looking for the same country, I expected we'd have some community of interest. Since our depression stemmed from the same source, our laughter would also be shared. Not so. In fact, reading most American "humorists" is like being Alonso Hagen, whose Trout Fishing Diary revealed that "he went fishing 160 times and lost 2231 trout for a seven-year average of 13.9 trout lost every time he went fishing."

Reading most contemporary American humorous writers is like losing a little hope, giving up a little hard-won ground each time you turn the page. There is a variety of laughter that is profound: real humor is a transcendental experience and any writer who tells jokes is just wasting my time and dissipating my salvation. For only laughter can save my soul. And only love, only reality, only the recovery of America will make me laugh again.

America today plays straight man to any pathetic would-be clown. But it isn't enough. It doesn't help. No one is really amused. No one is really enlightened.

What's needed is a straight man who isn't afraid to let America into the act. One who understands America's monster comedy, and who knows that the joke is endless and that trout streams are hilarious, the source of subjective mirth, our only defense against ourselves.

Like all true humorists, Richard Brautigan eschews the label. Spies and humorists can only function under cover. So rather than thinking of Brautigan as a comic writer, imagine a six-foot country boy, with wire-rim glasses and a homemade haircut and a shaggy, Wild West moustache that doesn't quite hide a perpetual grin. The perfect farmboy, shambling along in strange cities with his apple-picking money in his pocket and the bemused air of a loner in the midst of a crowd. Inside this hulking innocent, this perfect bumpkin, is a special (very special) correspondent from a terribly literate sort of Field & Stream magazine whose contributors are outdoorsmen on the order of Turgenev, Hemingway?, Bill Burroughs (expert on abnormal fauna and miraculous flora), Jack London, Robinson Jeffers and other high-class literary naturalists. In such exalted company, Mr. Brautigan is right at home.

His assignment is to cover the trout stream beat. He tramps along the shores of the hallucinatory trout stream that threads its way across the nation: a Broadway of the vanishing American wilderness. And from time to timelessness, he files reports of news, human interest and feature stories that take place along his visionary way. He writes of Trout Fishing activities in America with "a stroke of cool green trees along the river's shore, wild flowers and dark fins pressed against the paper."

Trout Fishing is the collected dispatches of this extraordinary correspondent as he fishes in the national network of bloodstreams and secret creeks and dream rivers that trickle through the nation like a central nervous system. This America is like "the Klamath River that was high and murky and had the intelligence of a dinosaur." An America that is both hilarious and intolerable. Each area of the nation has its bigots who construct celestial roads that lead, like the one Brautigan found in Utah, to "Spirit Prison... where everybody who isn't a Mormon goes when they die. All Catholics, Buddhists, Moslems, Jews, Baptists, Methodists, and International Jewel Thieves." An America inhabited by the living and the dead, with certain immutable laws applying to both. An America where there "were no fancy headstones for the poor dead. Their markers were small boards that looked like heels of stale bread." (Ask what time is it in America, and Trout Fishing replies, "It's sandwich time for the poor.")

These dispatches, these outdoor brevities, whether filed from Graveyard Creek ("The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars") or from Washington Square Park in San Francisco ("A Walden Pond for Winos"), can help Americans understand how it is that we are all foreigners in our own country. This America, circa 1967, is not the same nation that Americans over 25 were born in. During the last two and a half decades the national sets have been changed, the laws of the land revised and an entirely different aura introduced. No wonder that those of us who feel anything, feel out of place and very strange, very alienated. It isn't really strange as all. If we felt right at home in America today, now that would be strange. And this is true for the dead as well as for the living.

If Meriwether Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark exploring team), who found the headwaters of the Missouri River at what is now Great Falls, Montana, returned today, he'd be lost, confused and out of place just like everyone else.

"'No, I don't think Lewis would have understood it if the Missouri River suddenly began to look like a Deanna Durbin movie, like a chorus girl who wanted to go to college,' Trout Fishing in America said."
And I am not a bit surprised. After all, I was here when the change took place. Like Brautigan, I was raised on Deanna Durbin movies; and one summer when I was 16 years old I rode a horse along the eastern bank of the Missouri... and now I don't understand at all.

Perhaps it is not a matter of understanding anything. Perhaps it is a matter of empathy. Perhaps it is a matter or learning to love what's left of America. And like living with the dead, we have so learn to live with our loss. Our American childhood has vanished along with our frontier. In its place we have the phantasmagorical America of celluloid myths, our Brownie snapshots and our Woolworth memories and Army Surplus rivers, creeks and trout streams ("Six dollars and fifty cents a foot," for a used trout stream on sale at the Cleveland Wrecking Yard?) and ghostly small towns, the fractured backbone of America; the places where national legends and hometown boys and gangster heroes were born. Billy the Kid?, Hubert Humphrey?, Pretty Boy Floyd?, J. Edgar Hoover?, John Dillinger, they all come from places like Mooresville, Indiana, "where there's always a single feature, a double feature, and an eternal feature at the Great Theatre in Mooresville, Indiana: the John Dillinger capital of America."

It certainly is a mystery, and we are lucky to have a crack reporter like Mr. Brautigan to help us keep in touch with this star-spangled fantasia, where an old lady in Vermont is mistaken (regularly) for a trout stream; and where a creek can be made of "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."

We certainly are fortunate to have a writer like Mr. Brautigan, who isn't interested in shocking or terrifying or cursing America. but applies his talent to making us understand that "America is not an outhouse resting upon the imagination."

He writes of an America not unlike the humpback trout? he claims to have caught, in prose that is as clean, as incisive, as graceful as anything being written in America today. About that humpback trout... "There was a fine thing about this trout. I only wish I could have made a death mask of him. Not of his body though, but of his energy. I don't know if anyone would have understood his body. I put it in my creel."

If there is any way of cutting through the nightmare obscurification and making America luminous and comprehensible again, it will be via the poetic vision mounted on words culled from the language of legends, and literal to such an extent that a publisher's reader will miss the point completely and report that Richard Brautigan has written a book that, despite the title, is not about trout fishing.

"The old drunk told me about trout fishing. When he could talk, he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious and intelligent metal."
Obviously, Brautigan has more to say about trout than anyone since Isaac Walton?. An author who can describe a pheasant ("too fat with summer to fly... he ran across the field like a feathered pig") is a natural; so much a part of nature, that whether he is writing a recipe for "Standing Crusts for Great Pies" (not bad, I tried it) or revising Lord Byron's autopsy ("As if Trout Fishing in America had been Lord Byron and had died... and afterward never saw the shores of Idaho again, never saw Carrie Creek, Worswick, Hot Springs, Paradise Creek, Salt Creek and Duck Lake again") is writing about trout fishing in all its exquisite subtleties.

Not that Brautigan is obtuse or easily misunderstood. He writes clearly, enunciating each phrase. He is not sloppy, he is not sentimental, he is close to the ground and without intellectual pretensions. He is never profound, but he is often a poet. A literary man of the people: which is to say, he's a gifted hick. It takes a sort of sincerity that is traditional among country folk to bypass all the rhetoric and solve one of the mysteries to the American dilemma.

Who else would search out the significance of a kitten named Room 208, who resided in Hotel Trout Fishing in America?, not in Room 208, but in a room on the third floor?

Trivia? America is riddled with such minute enigmas; the Great Questions elude the most astute. And yet there is nothing but truth in everything, a major clue in every pine cone. There is hope in Hell, and there is still some evidence of humanity in America. There are still American writers like Richard Brautigan who are perceptive enough to see the forest in spite of the absence of trees, still innocent enough to learn the original meaning of Room 208, how it runs like melting snow all the way down the mountainside to a small cat living and playing in Hotel Trout Fishing in America, believing itself to be the last cat in the world. not having seen another cat in such a long time, totally unafraid, newspaper spread out all over the bathroom floor, and something good cooking on the hot plate.

Something good cooking on the American hot plate. Thank you, Mr. Brautigan, for a change it isn't a naked lunch.


Ramparts
December 1967



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