‘The narrator’s quest for Trout Fishing in America is a series of disappointments’ (Tony Tanner). How important do you feel disappointment, loss and death are in Trout Fishing in America?
The importance of disappointment, loss and death in Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America can’t be ignored or overlooked as it is a constant and recurring theme throughout the novel. However, the way in which Brautigan conveys this reoccurring theme is mainly through his use of humour, witticism and absurdism, and this allows Brautigan to counteract the feeling of disappointment, loss and death. “Although his work is indeed extremely funny, there is a pervasive sense of loss, desolation and death in it which amounts to an implicit formulation of an attitude towards contemporary America” (Tanner 1971: p.406).
Brautigan is able to expresses the feelings of disappointment, loss and death through the fragmented nature of the novel, it has been suggested that Trout Fishing in America can be read as a “collection of tiny fictions or perhaps even prose poems, each highly wrought, like exquisitely handcrafted trout flies or lures, most of them with enough interest and hooking power to “work” by themselves” (Cooley 1981: p.405). By telling the narrative in this fragmented style Brautigan has enabled himself to apply various meanings to the title Trout Fishing in America without having to adhere to a strong linear storyline, and can therefore apply the title to various subjects or situations.
For example Trout Fishing in America becomes a pen nib, a place, a person, a sport, or even the environmental degradation and commercialism that Brautigan could see consuming America. This allows Brautigan a freedom in his writing to express various experiences of disappointment, loss and death. As the novel is in fact more like a collection of prose poems or individual works of fiction than perhaps a more conventional linear novel, Brautigan encourages the use of the reader’s imagination while continually alluding to the bleak reality of disappointment, loss and death. ‘Trout Fishing on the Bevel’ is a clever example of how Brautigan fuses the feeling of death and loss with a humorous description, as well as alluding to the class divide that separates the rich from the poor even in death. “The graveyard had fine marble headstones and statues and tombs. The other graveyard was for the poor…There were no fancy headstones for the poor dead” (Brautigan 1967: p.26).
It could be suggested that this is Brautigan further condemning the consumer driven approach to life in America, that even in death there are those who have and those who don’t. The humour in this chapter is related through the epitaphs he describes on the gravestones or markers of the ‘poor dead’, “Devoted slob father of”, “Beloved worked to death mother of”, “John Talbot who at the age of eighteen had his ass shot out in a honky- tonk, this mayonnaise jar with wilted flowers in it was left here six months ago by his sister who is in the crazy place now” (Brautigan 1967: p.27). The reference to the crazy place could be alluding to the time that some of the ‘Beat’ poets spent in an insane asylum, and to who Brautigan dedicated much of his work including Trout Fishing in America. It was not unknown for the ‘Beat’ poets and writers to check themselves into an insane asylum through the winter months and then be released in the spring, “Ah yes, there was a future in the insane asylum.
No winter spent there could be a total loss” (Brautigan 1967: p.23). It is through Brautigan’s capability to merge death, loss and disappointment with a dark humour and often sarcastic, absurdist view of American culture that has seen it described as “some of the most original and refreshing prose to appear in the sixties” (Tanner 1971 :p.412). Brautigan’s ability to use humour as a counter balance against loss, death and disappointment continues throughout the novel and in many ways allows the reader to find amusement in many of the stories, even though they often contain scenes of death, destruction and the loss of the natural American landscape. In the chapter ‘Knock on Wood (part two)’, the young narrator is embarking on a fishing trip and describes “how beautiful the field looked and the creek that came pouring down in a waterfall off the hill. But as I got closer to the creek I could see something was wrong… The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees” (Brautigan 1967: p.5).
This description by Brautigan can certainly be read as a description of man dominating nature, how even if at first it is not apparent that the creek is in fact a flight of stairs, upon closer inspection the impact of man on nature is evident, resulting in the loss of the natural habitat. However, Brautigan does inject some humour into the story when recounting how an old women was mistaken for a trout stream, “ ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘I thought you were a trout stream.’ ‘I’m not,’ she said.” It could be suggested that although this is a humorous anecdote, Brautigan is again emphasising how natural America is being replaced by human activity, and how the boundaries of the natural and the unnatural are perhaps becoming more and more blurred. The collaboration that Brautigan brings between his sense of dark humour and death, loss or disappointment is perhaps best illustrated in the chapter ‘Red Lip’.
Brautigan immediately brings a sense of death and desolation when he describes “an old abandoned shack that had a sheriff’s notice nailed like a funeral wreath to the front door. NO TRESPASSING 4/17 OF A HAIKU” (Brautigan 1967: p.7). The sense of death and abandonment is then continued with the description of the outhouse which Brautigan personifies in a way that again mixes both humour and death. “The inside of the outhouse was exposed like a human face and the outhouse seemed to say, ‘The old guy who built me crapped in here 9,745 times and he’s dead now and I don’t want anyone else to touch me. He was a good guy. He built me with loving care. Leave me alone. I’m a monument now to a good ass gone under. There’s no mystery here. That’s why the door’s open. If you have to crap, go in the bushes like the deer. ‘Fuck you,’ I said to the outhouse. ‘All I want is a ride down the river” (Brautigan 1967: p. 8).
Again, although told in a humorous way the subject of death and loss are apparent, the dead man has lost his life, the outhouse has lost its creator, and is now just a monument to a past life in the same way that grave stones are a monument to the dead in ‘Trout Fishing on the Bevel’. The speech of the outhouse could be read as an epitaph which again draws on the parallels with the monuments in the ‘poor dead’s’ graveyard and again relates a feeling of loss. In the chapter ‘Prologue to Grider Creek’, Brautigan immediately refers to the infamous American criminal John Dillinger who robbed over 20 banks and although charged with murder, he was never actually convicted of homicide. Brautigan’s reference to John Dillinger in the novel is interesting as it is again reinforces the problems that consumerist America was beginning to face. With the growing consumerism in America the need for money escalated, and subsequently the violence used in obtaining the money also escalated.
The fact that there is a museum to John Dillinger in Mooresville, Indiana, adds to “a general sense of the destructive violence which has entered into America’s heritage” (Tanner 1971: p.408). Brautigan’s statement that “some towns are known as the peach capital of America or the cherry capital” (Brautigan 1967: p.16) again shows the changing values of America and how the country was changing for the worse, at least in Brautigans eyes. His description of how Mooresville, Indiana, had become the “John Dillinger capital of America” (Brautigan1967: p.16) again reinforces how America was changing, becoming more violent and accepting that violence. As this chapter progresses the reader is introduced to a man with a rat infestation and is told that he has bought a revolver and plenty of ammunition to dispose of the rats. Again Brautigan turns this instance into one that can be read as a slightly humorous tale, he personifies the rats with thoughts, feelings and a sense of humour.
“He started shooting them. It didn’t bother the rats at all. They acted as if it were a movie and started eating their companions for popcorn. The man walked over to the rat that was busy eating a friend and placed the pistol against the rats head. The rat did not move and continued eating away. When the hammer clicked back, the rat paused between bites and looked out the corner of its eye. First at the pistol then at the man. It was a kind of friendly look as if to say, ‘when my mother was young she sang like Deanna Durbin.’ The man pulled the trigger. He had no sense of humour” (Brautigan 1967: p.17). As the reader progresses to the chapter ‘The Ballet for Trout Fishing in America’, the theme of loss, death and disappointment is continued, although in this chapter the narrative seems to have political connotations. The theme of death is portrayed through the death of a plant and its subsequent burial in a can.
“ The can’s only a graveyard now for a Cobra Lily that has turned dry and brown and has black freckles” (Brautigan 1967: p.19). The political reference in this chapter is shown through the use of a presidential candidate’s campaign button and again reinforces the sense of death and loss. “As a kind of funeral wreath, there is a red, white and blue button sticking in the plant and the words on it say, ‘I’m for Nixon’” (Brautigan 1967: p.19). It could be suggested that the Cobra Lily on which the button is stuck is a metaphor for the greed and power of America, a plant that consumes its pray as America is consuming what it can. It could also be read as an attack on Nixon himself because of his involvement in the Vietnam War, the use of left-wing politics and loss, death and disappointment are particularly common in Brautigans work and that of other ecological writers of that period. In the chapter ‘Worsewick’ , it seems that Brautigan is again attacking the impact of man on nature, even though the act of blocking up a creek may seem trivial, the effect on nature is still one of death and loss.
“The boards damned up the creek enough to form a huge bathtub there… There was a green slime growing around the edges of the tub and there were dozens of dead fish floating in our bath tub. Their bodies had been turned white by death” (Brautigan 1967: p.56/57). Again this paints a vivid picture of a once natural land being altered and therefore ruined by human intervention, later in the chapter “the narrator tells of making love in a lake coated with green slime and dead fish. Releasing his sperm in the water he watches it instantly become a stringy mess into which a dead fish floats. The feeling of fertility gone sour, of a once beautiful land given over to deadness, hangs over the book” (Tanner 1971: p.408). The chapter titled ‘The Cleveland wrecking yard’, is perhaps the most vivid in description when it comes to the idea of man being able to own and control nature.
Although it is obviously a major concern of Brautigan, he again uses his humour to depict man’s control of nature and how it is bought and sold as a consumer good. “USED TROUT STREAM FOR SALE. MUST BE SEEN TO BE APPRECIATED” (Brautigan 1967: p.139). The narrator then goes on to list the various natural commodities that can be purchased in relation to the trout stream such as the birds, animals and waterfalls. The idea of the consumer being able to buy the trout stream by the foot, and choose what he wants to accompany it again strongly relates the idea of nature being a commodity that can be bought and sold. “ We’re selling the waterfalls separately of course, and the trees and birds, flowers, grass and ferns we’re also selling extra” (Brautigan 1967: p.139/140).
To conclude it is apparent that Brautigan is particularly concerned with the effect that consumerism is having on America, both the changing attitudes of people and the destruction of nature. However, the way in which he presents his fears is through a witty, humorous, sometimes bleak description of modern America in the 1960’s and the cultural change that was happening. “The mayonnaise jar rests on one of the graves of the American dream; similarly Brautigan’s lexical games rest lightly, but distinctly, on the panorama of violence, decay and death which is recognized as the real world. A gift for play and a sense of annihilation come together in the placing of the last word of his book, just as they do in his work as a whole” (Tanner 1971: p.414).
Brautigan, Richard (1967). Trout Fishing in America. Vintage Books, London. Cooley, John (1981). The Garden in the Machine. Michigan Academician. Tanner, Tony (1971). City of Words; American Fiction 1950-1970 HarperCollins