Richard Brautigan might be that garrulous guy at the bar telling stories of things he’s done and seen, or things that people he knows have done and seen. The book goes down easy; I read it in less than an afternoon. Individually the tales don’t go on for too long, there’s usually something amusing along the way or at the end, and sometimes they’re even poetic. Up to a certain age, or above a certain blood-alcohol level, they may even seem profound.
But more than half a century after publication, Trout Fishing has aged very badly. In Brautigan’s telling, anyone who isn’t white and male and heterosexual is just an object. The way he writes very casually about a “Negro whore” or a “three-hundred pound squaw” (whose 15-year-old daughters the author wants to lay) shows how little these people count in Brautigan’s experience and what he thinks they are good for. In the time depicted by Trout Fishing, Brautigan was married to Virginia Dionne Alder; they had a daughter together. He never mentions either of them by name; they are always “my woman” and “the baby.” The only time Virginia speaks in the book that I remember is to tell Brautigan that her diaphragm won’t work if they have sex in the hot springs so he should be sure to pull out.
It’s not just a matter of exposing America’s sordid underbelly by documenting his own degradation and that of the people around him. I doubt that hard times were so unknown in 1967, and right now America’s gold-plated underbelly is squatting in the White House communicating straight from the id to a mass audience, so there’s nothing presently gained by the book in that regard either.
Life among the winos, life of barely getting by and throwing your trash down an outhouse hole, life in San Francisco’s shabby quarters (as they were then, they’re probably unaffordable now), life skittering from job to job in the Pacific Northwest, these all figure in Brautigan’s sketches. There’s a bleak humor in a fair number of them, and some surrealism in many, particularly in his varied use of the book’s title. At times it seems that Trout Fishing in America might be the name of a person, while at others it’s a disembodied force, and at still others it’s hard to parse just what it might be. Probably the best of the surreal pieces is “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard” where Brautigan visits an impossible junkyard that has a special deal going on selling a used trout stream.
“We’re selling it by the foot length. You can buy as little as you want or you can buy all we’ve got left. A man came in here this morning and bought 563 feet. He’s going to give it to his niece for a birthday present,” the salesman said.
“We’re selling the waterfalls separately of course, and the trees and birds, flowers, grass and ferns we’re also selling extra. The insects we’re giving away free with a minimum purchase of ten feet of stream.”
“How much are you selling the stream for?” I asked
“Six dollars and fifty-cents a foot,” he said. “That’s for the first hundred feet. After that it’s five dollars a foot.” (p. 104) …
“Stacked over against the wall were the waterfalls. There were about a dozen of them, ranging from a drop of a few feet to a drop of ten or fifteen feet.
“There was one waterfall that was over sixty feet long. There were tags on the pieces of the big falls describing the correct order for putting the falls back together again.
“The waterfalls all had price tags on them. There were more expensive than the stream. The waterfalls were selling for $19.00 a foot.” (p. 106)
Sometimes the garrulous guy at the bar comes up with a good one.