Places: Trout Fishing in America

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1967

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque

Time of work: Fall, 1960, through fall, 1961, with flashbacks to the 1940’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Washington Park

*Washington Trout Fishing in AmericaPark. Public park in San Francisco, California, that is meticulously described in the first pages of the novel. The park is named after George Washington, one of the Founders of America. Within the park is a statue of another Founder, Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography and aphorisms are famous for their optimism. The statue’s four-sided base has the word “welcome” on each side. The park, however, is not filled with optimistic Americans opening their arms to strangers. Rather, winos hang around waiting for sandwiches to be distributed to them. The narrator reflects on the gap between the literary America represented by Franklin, and the actuality of the park. While average Americans hurry past on their errands, the narrator wastes time with the winos, including a man named “Trout Fishing in America Shorty,” who is confined to a wheelchair. The narrator recalls that it was one of his stepfathers, a drunk, who first told him about fishing for trout and about the great beauty of trout. If any Americans still appreciate the beauty and romance of nature, they are the bums, drifters, and assorted poor who have no place in the society around them, which views nature as a commodity.

The book’s winos–including a boy who is a Kool-Aid wino–enjoy one advantage over more productive members of society: They still have imaginations. They talk with passion about improbable and hypothetical things, including how to train and maintain a flea circus. In the American West of this novel, the frontier is closed, and the only escape from an oppressive society lies inward. This path, however, is ultimately self-destructive.

*American West

*American West. Richard Brautigan’s story follows the emotional journey of the narrator, who progresses from the satire of the first pages toward a sad, noble embrace of life’s transiency in the end. The book also moves from the specificity of the first chapter toward more generalized descriptions of the motels, roads, and bars of the poor in the American West. In this sense, the America of Trout Fishing in America is as much a quality as a place.

The book is also an excursion into the American pastoral literary tradition, and allusions to such works as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and the nature stories of Ernest Hemingway are frequent. “Trout Fishing in America” is also the name of a person, as represented by the wino in a wheelchair named Trout Fishing in America Shorty. This character is the satiric opposite of the type of woodland hero that has been a staple of American mythology from the nineteenth century books of James Fenimore Cooper to twentieth century films of John Wayne. The wino is Brautigan’s comment on the end of the myth of the American West. One of the book’s many verbal tricks, in fact, is simple repetition of the phrase “trout fishing in America” to a point at which it becomes an ironic, meaningless mantra.

The novel’s surrealism, whimsicality, and critical stance toward materialism have endeared it to many members of the counterculture. The book’s comic appeal to the imagination, however, is very strongly undercut by its consistent pessimism about the mechanistic destruction not only of the environment but also of the human aspiration for freedom and happiness.

BibliographyChenetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983. Introduces all of Brautigan’s writing in the light of his surrealist and deconstructionist fictional theories. Sees Trout Fishing in America as a series of images that create a network of narrative meaning.Foster, Edward Halsey. Richard Brautigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Good single-volume introduction to Brautigan’s life and work, showing how Brautigan drew upon his experiences.Legler, Gretchen. “Brautigan’s Waters.” CEA Critic: An Official Journal of the College English Association 54, no. 1 (Fall, 1991): 67-69. Analysis of Brautigan’s treatment of nature and water in the novel.Seib, Kenneth. “Trout Fishing in America: Brautigan’s Funky Fishing Yarn.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 13, no. 2 (1971): 63-71. Analyzes the theme of trout fishing, showing how it functions in various ways to give the book unified form, viewpoint, and meaning.Stull, William L. “Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America: Notes of a Native Son.” American Literature 56 (March, 1964): 68-80. Discusses the themes and motifs of the book, and explains many of Brautigan’s allusions.
Categories: Places