Remember the 1960s?
Oh sure you do. They may be a little purple hazy, but who could forget Zap Comix, with that keep-on-trucking Mr. Natural? Surely you recall the local head shop with the glow-in-the-dark Zodiac posters and those ropy smells back of bead curtains? You must recall Walter Cronkite’s weekly body count from Vietnam? Or the Grateful Dead endlessly long-strange-tripping on a turntable in the dorm?
If you fell from the womb too young to remember the decade, you’ve at least fantasized about it. Come on, admit it—Sixties Envy, man. Envy for the music. Envy for free love. (Think of that—free love! It didn’t even kill you!) Envy for the music festivals, the water beds, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the bongs, the marches, the sit-ins, the moon landing, the thrill of Revolution in the air.
Revolution? The mot juste, in fact. African Americans and young people, mostly, took pickaxes to the walls of the Normal; the status quo went up in flames on college campuses and in Watts, on bridges in Alabama and motorcades in Dallas. Barriers tumbled, and some days it seemed every corner of America except Muskogee, Okla., convulsed in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown.
New ideas, very good and very bad ones, filled the skies, gorgeous and grotesque butterflies erupting from the gray-flannel chrysalis of the 1950s. People asked big questions: What is freedom? What is normal? What are we fighting for? Who says that’s just the way it is? Will we make it together to the mountain top?
Artists crashed through old boundaries. Warhol made soup cans and car wrecks into art. Hendrix turned electric guitar into an auditory drug. Thelonius and Miles turned jazz inside out. Bonnie and Clyde on a big screen made even dying look fun.
Writers experimented too. The era produced Kurt Vonnegut and Carlos Castaneda and James Baldwin and Rachel Carson. But the real flag-bearer of the era of hippie fiction may have been a lanky, gentle, troubled Washington-state native who wrote an experimental novel that has sold 4 million copies in the half century since its publication.
At least four people actually remember reading it.
The book, Trout Fishing in America, came from the pen of Richard Brautigan. It presents us with something new—not really a novel, though it tells a story, and not really a poem, although it displays language in brilliant patches. It’s not really a drug trip either…though it would make a good one.
To borrow a phrase popular in snark culture today: It is what it is. And what it is—whatever it is—has powerfully influenced the writings of figures like Haruki Murikami and W.P. Kinsella, who wrote the magical realist novel Shoeless Joe, the basis for the movie Field of Dreams.
Brautigan came up dirt poor in the West, and the deprivations of a transient, often fatherless childhood apparently played with his head.
As a young man in Oregon trying to make his mark as a poet, he threw a rock through the glass window of a police station in order to be arrested. Hungry and cold, the wannabe writer knew jail at least held bread and water, and a cage where he wouldn’t die of hyperthermia. Still, it may not have been the smartest of moves. The police spotted signs of strange behavior in Brautigan (duh!), so they sent him to the Oregon State Hospital on Christmas Eve of 1955. He enjoyed a dozen electroshock therapy treatments.
Having his brain partly electrocuted must have been a terrible, ah, shock for a man termed gentle and naïve and childish by most folks who made his acquaintance. Whatever else, the incarceration certainly freed Brautigan’s mind.
In the summer of 1961, he went on a camping trip to Idaho with his wife and child, and there wrote feverishly, completing two short novels, Trout Fishing in America the first. The second, a similarly slender volume called A Confederate General at Big Sur, published first.
Trout Fishing hit big. A young Billy Collins, later to become poet laureate of the United States, recalled the day he discovered the rough unpublished manuscript in a San Francisco apartment. The following quote comes from an introduction Collins wrote especially for the Mariner edition of this book.
“I took the stack of pages…sat down on the floor, and began reading. A few hours later, I looked up, blinking like someone emerging from a strange cavern. I had never read anything like it. This book, I was convinced, was our very own Alice in Wonderland. And Brautigan was our Lewis Carroll…”
He found a real far-out ‘60s thing, in other words. Brautigan played freely with the conventional ideas of the novel form, how it was written, what it meant.
His title alone twists and turns like a fish hauled in on a shivering line. At its starting point, Trout Fishing in America seems simply a book title, just that. But in just a few pages, Trout Fishing in America turns into a physical body: It looks a lot like Lord Byron, and in fact gets shipped home from Greece dead of fever. A turn of the page or two later, Trout Fishing in America has morphed into prank graffiti that sixth-grade bullies write on the backs of wee little first-graders. Then Trout Fishing in America shifts shape again, becoming a man answering a letter about the FBI. Shortly after that, we find Trout Fishing in America as Jack the Ripper’s costume, then a hotel, then a legless, disagreeable vagrant named Trout Fishing America Shorty.
Clear on that?
Lest you think this all feels just too nutty for any reasonable reader to swallow, consider that today we have a crater on the moon named Shorty—named for that character: Trout Fishing America Shorty. Jack Schmitt, an astronaut on Apollo 17 and the last man to walk on and depart the moon, gave the crater that name on humankind’s final moon trip. How many writers have a crater on the moon named for one of their characters?
Brautigan’s use of the book title as a way to assault conventions in both ironic and surrealistic ways only begins his mischief. He challenges the whole notion of fiction the same way Andres Serrano would later challenge the notion of museum art: This is art? A crucifix in a vat of the artist’s own urine? Art?
About Brautigan, make up your own mind. I’ll offer a section from his book to help you get your head around it.
The book’s narrator has come to check out an advertisement offering a trout stream for sale. We walk through a salvage facility. A salesman directs the narrator back into the warehouse to have a look.
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. They were more expensive than the stream. The waterfalls were selling for $19.00 a foot.
I went into another room where there were piles of sweet-smelling lumber, glowing a soft yellow from a different color skylight above the lumber. In the shadows of the edge of the room under the sloping roof of the building were many sinks and urinals covered with dust, and there was also another waterfall about seventeen feet long, lying there in two lengths and already beginning to gather dust.
I had seen all I wanted of the waterfalls, and now I was very curious about the trout stream, so I followed the salesman’s directions and ended up outside the building.
O I had never in my life seen anything like that trout stream. It was stacked in piles of various lengths: ten, fifteen, twenty feet, etc. There was one pile of hundred-foot lengths. There was also a box of scraps. The scraps were in odd sizes, ranging from six inches to a couple of feet.
There was a loudspeaker on the side of the building and soft music was coming out. It was a cloudy day and seagulls were circling high overhead.
Behind the stream were big bundles of trees and bushes. They were covered with sheets of patched canvas. You could see the tops and roots sticking out the ends of the bundles.
I went up close and looked at the lengths of stream. I could see some trout in them. I saw one good fish. I saw some crawdads crawling around the rocks at the bottom.
It looked like a fine stream. I put my hand in the water; it was cold and felt good.
Paste reader, this selection shows one theme that Brautigan, the writer, almost always fishes out for us: Man and industry and commerce turn out to be—guess what?—terribly at odds with trout and streams and nature. This conflict runs consistently through Brautigan’s 120 pages, in most every chapter and vignette, sad and happy, strange and tall. No wonder the flower-power hippies swarmed book stores, gorging on the writer’s Man-Bad, Nature-Good vision. Their appetite for Trout Fishing in American elevated Brautigan to godliness for a few happy years.
Then the ‘60s went away, and it killed him. Or something did.
Brautigan shot himself in a big rambling house in northern California in 1984. He was 49, alcoholic, alone. A private eye discovered his body, or what remained of it, about a month after the suicide. Like Hemingway before him and Hunter S. Thompson after, guns and liquor and the big D—Depression—ended a ripping good yarn of a writer’s life, way out West.
Honestly, in our postmodern, metafictional sophistication, Brautigan sometimes feels awfully naïve…or occasionally like pure BS. Then again, a lot of Dada and Surrealism strikes that way.
But when Brautigan finds the zone, when he surges up from the deep and strikes at the fly of your imagination like those big rainbow trout he loved, his poetry and talent feel undeniable.
He writes that when old trout die, “their white beards flow to the sea.” He gives us an old crone in a basement, says she feeds a “huge wood furnace…like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.” He talks about the pages of a book turning “faster and faster until they were spinning like wheels in the sea.”
You may not turn the pages quite that fast as you read Trout Fishing in America, but you’ll be amazed at the fun inside. I find swirls of art, real creation, even after wading through stretches of whitewater claptrap.
You’ll catch something beautiful in Brautigan too…just remember to bring your hip waders.
Charles McNair authored the new novel Pickett’s Charge (have you ordered it yet?) and happily serves as Books Editor at Paste.