The beat generation’s Richard Brautigan surrealistic prose-poem entitled “Trout Fishing in America” is considered a small masterpiece of American literature filled with zany characters, continual adventures to small towns and places, to forests and rivers –many of which are actually named: Trout Fishing in America. So we are provided with a bit of a game with that name, of which any person, place or thing can be named. Some chapters of the novel include:
- "The Last Time I Saw Trout Fishing in America"
- “The Shipping of Trout Fishing in America Shorty to Nelson Algren"
- "Room 208, Hotel Trout Fishing in America"
- "Witness for Trout Fishing in America Peace,"
The novel, published in 1967, is constructed of episodes with the narrator drunk or about to get drunk. Underlying the episodes is the idea of the average person’s need to escape to those pristine and untouched areas of recreation, while impending industrialization is chewing up huge chunks of Nature. Yet is there any trout fishing in Trout Fishing in America? Yes and No. There are small snippets in the novel, such as:
I threw out a salmon egg and let it drift down over that rock and WHAM! a good hit! and I had the fish on and it ran hard downstream, cutting at an angle and staying deep and really coming on hard, solid and uncompromising, and then the fish jumped and for a second I thought it was a frog. I’d never seen a fish like that before.
What the hell!
The fish ran deep again and I could feel its life energy screaming back up the line to my hand. The line felt like sound. It was like an ambulance siren coming straight at me, red light flashing, and then going away again and then taking to the air and becoming an air-raid siren.
The fish jumped a few more times and it still looked like a frog, but it didn’t have any legs. Then the fish grew tired and sloppy, and I swung and splashed it up the surface of the creek and into my net.
The fish was a twelve-inch rainbow trout with a huge hump on its back. A hunchback trout. The first I’d ever seen. The hump was probably due to an injury that occurred when the trout was young. Maybe a horse stepped on it or a tree fell over in a storm or its mother spawned where they were building a bridge.
There was a fine thing about that trout. I only wish I could have made a death mask of him. Not of his body though, but of his energy. I don’t know if anyone would have understood his body. I put it in my creel.
Yet for the most part, the novel is a kaleidoscope of characters and places which are illustrated ironic humor which is coupled with the sense of a loss of innocence. This is accomplished with a style that recalls beat experimentation techniques, but also Hemingway (whom he considered his spiritual father), Walt Whitman as well as James Joyce. What is not commented on by literary pundits is that Brautigan was a fly fisherman whom had written the novel while camping and fishing of a period of over 5 years. From his notebooks he inscribed:
"Name of places where I caught trout, in order of appearance, 1961—Idaho, a travel song, a ghost song." The list included Silver Creek, Copper Creek, Little Wood Creek, Big Smokey Creek, Paradise Creek, Salt Creek, Little Smokey Creek, Carrie Creek, Middle Fork of the Boise River, Queens River, South Fork of the Poyette River, Big Pine Creek, East Fork of Big Pine Creek, Fall Creek, Redfish Lake Creek, Salmon River, Little Redfish Lake, Yellow Belly Lake Creek, Stanley Lake, and Stanley Lake Creek.
After running out of money camping and fishing with his wife and daughter, he moved back to San Francisco to finish, edit and promote the prose-poem novel. Even his seven-foot, two-section RA Special #240 bamboo fly rod and an Olympus reel were auctioned in eBay by his editor.. Today, if one Googles the phrase “Trout Fishing in America,” we can readily see that Brautigan’s name game continues even to the present day. There is even a folk band entitled so. To answer the original question: Brautigan’s novel is perhaps the only literary masterpiece which was inspired and emanates from the very act of fly fishing. We can almost envision him writing by campfire after a successful day of fishing. As an allegory, Brautigan reinvents those places of tranquility – in people, in places – to commemorate their possible disappearance. Very much a text to take on the next outing.