Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan: A Eulogy to the Pre-Industrial
I used to have this coffee table book, Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America by Douglas Gayeton, a collection of photos of people involved in sustainable agriculture with definitions of sustainability buzzwords plastered in a white handwritten cursive font over the images. I say I “used to have” the book because I forgot to take it with me as I was fleeing the house of a particularly awful potential one-night-stand and it has since been swallowed by some void of terrible beards, craft beer, and bike repair tools. Alas. In the introduction of Local, Gayeton recounts taking his daughter to a salmon run he would visit in his younger years, only to return to a decimated fish population, the consequence of industry and mismanagement.
Richard Brautigan voices a similar lament, albeit in more poetic terms, in his 1967 book Trout Fishing in America. Trout Fishing in America functions as not only the title of the book, but also as a number of interactive characters, a symbol of a lost pastoral past, and a god losing his omnipresence to industrialization. Trout Fishing in America dines on homemade apple compote and walnut catsup with his girlfriend, opera singer Maria Callas. Trout Fishing in America is a joke written in chalk on the back of first-grade children. Trout Fishing in America responds to letters and holds a baby in his lap by a trout stream. Trout Fishing in America is a romantic, naturalist costume for the Industrial Revolution to wear while it gets away with murder. Trout Fishing in America is an elusive concept which Brautigan has a strong relationship to, and which is disappearing to the hands of progress.
The very cover of the book, an image of a statue of Benjamin Franklin in San Francisco’s Washington Square, functions as a setting for many of the events in the book, a gathering place for the outcast and down-and-out, endearing winos of San Francisco. It is as if Brautigan is conscious that the world is shifting to one that is not only a place where people go about their lives but a mirror through which people watch themselves going about their lives, any moment perhaps a historic one, lost to time, meant to be saved. Composed of a series of disjointed vignettes and lacking a single linear narrative, Trout Fishing in America is easy to put down and pick back up again. It does not demand that you follow it to completion, but requests that for a moment you place yourself in its absurd, imaginative universe.
Now, I don’t know much about salmon or trout, but I do have stories about catfish. When I was little, there was a restaurant called The Catfish Place not terribly far from my family’s farm in Huntsville, Texas. We had a couple of catfish ponds of our own on our farm with big ol’ ancient catfish, ugly with their gaping mouths and wide eyes. The Catfish Place sold fried catfish and hush puppies. Every table got a bucket of peanuts, the shells of which were meant to be tossed on the concrete floor. The Catfish Place has long dried up and closed down, and I don’t know how long it’s been since I looked a catfish in its hungry face. One of those fuckers got me with its barbs at the end of its whiskers and I haven’t been too keen on having encounters with catfish for many, many years. In spite of my reservations about the animal itself, The Catfish Place is a personal symbol for my childhood, a bygone era.
The pastoral is dying, or dead, and Trout Fishing in America is the swan song Brautigan writes for an America in the midst of a transition to an automatized, commodified, pop culture-driven society. In his world, a bum gets ruined after he is “discovered” by the movies. Trout creeks are sold by the yard at a used parts store; “dusty” waterfalls may be found in the used plumbing section. Camping is ruined when it becomes a fad, marketed to the masses as escapism from the hardships of daily life, but where the masses are inescapable. This is a book published shortly after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the establishment of the EPA. However the tone of Trout Fishing lacks the bombastic tone of typical environmentalist literature. It reads more like a string of mourners at a funeral, recalling good times with their recently deceased pal. He’s not coming back, but he may be remembered through stories.
It is through texts such as Trout Fishing in America and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, films such as Easy Rider, and photos of Civil Rights and Anti-war marches that many of us develop a nostalgia for a time in which we never existed. It is not so different from Brautigan, born in 1934, mourning the 19th century. Diving into such romantic places, we may forget for a moment all that becomes extinct in the inevitable passing of time. Or rather, we may be guided by the grief of the past in moving forward with in our own grief.