Some books have provided me priceless revelations. W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge turned on something fundamental in me. Larry Darrell’s traveler/loner appealed to me and let me understand that the things he was seeking—humility and egalitarian democracy in his own life—I was looking for myself. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller presented a complex and existentially absurd world that resembled the life I had known. I also wanted the authentic and autonomous life Yossarian so hungered for.
But the little book Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan made most sense of all. Adrift in a world of production and consumption, the narrator seeks a new place of his own definition. The main characters, all named Trout Fishing in America, each inhabited a special place in my mind. Besides being the title of the book, “Trout Fishing in America” plays many roles in the book. It is a character, a hotel, fishing itself, and another character named Trout Fishing in America Shorty.
Brautigan’s novel isn’t much like any other. Instead of a story arc, with a build-up, action, climax, and denouement, Brautigan constructed the novel from seemingly disconnected stories, each of which make some statement about life in the United States or about humanity itself. My favorite chapter, “Tom Martin Creek” begins as many fishing stories would–but is only a page long. The narrator catches a trout in tiny Tom Martin Creek in a pool under a culvert that passes under a road. It’s a good fish that “fought all over the top of the pool.” The narrator decides he likes the feel of the creek. He likes the name of the creek, too, and decides to follow it, like one might follow a person, “to see what they have to offer.”
Like many people who seem interesting at first glance, Tom Martin Creek has nothing more to offer. After the narrator (who has no name) caught that first fish, he finds the creek deals him rocky bends, pine-cone strewn gutters, and a canyon so narrow that the creek “poured out of it like water from a faucet.” After dashing himself against the tribulations of the creek, he says that, “You had to be a plumber to fish that creek.” That first trout was it. The creek had nothing else. “I was alone in there. But I didn’t know that until later.”
The entire book is a collection of narratives on the nature of fishing and other people. The narrator seems to be just an observer, telling the reader about youth, loss of youth, the wonder of the natural world, and disappointment. At no time does the novel descend into worry or despair. It is what it is, and the mind of Brautigan reveals present-day existence to be a series of absurdist events. Trout Fishing in America is the very essence of Dada with the trout being the only thing that makes much sense.
The first time I picked up the book, I so liked some scenes and chapters that I read the book three times. It’s not a hard book to read that many times in a row. It takes only a couple of hours at most to make it from cover to cover. Like Catch-22 and The Razor’s Edge, I have read Trout Fishing in America innumerable times. I just reread it twice in the last few months. The probability that I will read it again is very high.
The book was a revelation. Someone, like Heller, understood the world like I did. My adult life careened crazily from one endeavor, one emotional jag, to another. Bureaucratic nightmares lurked around every corner. The novel explained such absurdities as the only way to get a job was to have experience, but the only way to get experience was to get a job. The way out of a dismal existence was to accept that existence, but accepting its existence gave it credence and legitimacy.
The book framed my young life, as well. Suddenly, the arbitrary nature of home life when I was a kid made a kind of sense, if nonsense can transform itself into sense. The kaleidoscope shifts in emotions, actions, and situations didn’t seem foreign to me anymore. The nature of a kaleidoscope places a person in a stable position while the world in front of them speeds in a flowing sequence of colors and shapes. I was the person at the end of the kaleidoscope. I was the only stable element in my world. I could become an actor in the chaos. And that’s what I liked most about Trout Fishing in America.
Most of the time, I see the world through a lens that offers a view like that of Catch-22 and Trout Fishing in America. A privileged business mogul who has little connection with the lives of ordinary Americans becomes the front-runner in an election race. People live perfectly normal, if meaningless lives just down the street from abject poverty. Preachers and the morally righteous teach that dependence on ritual and an antiquated tale of a desert people will set them free. We live our lives for the afterlife. Citizens move to faceless suburbs to protect their children from the vagaries of the urban world, only to leave them adrift in a world of non-possibility. We go to school to learn how to be slaves to a system that distributes neither money nor power in ways that might let us become authentic, original human beings.
How am I—or anyone—supposed to make sense of these absurdities?
Even now, my comfort depends on the misery of countless people in the developing world. Low-wage workers in dirty factories make the baubles and bits that I consider luxuries. I don’t need the toaster like I don’t need a career, but they are always there if I choose to want them. I am lucky enough to have the choice. My immigrant neighbor has to work endless hours to afford a smoky little car.
In the end, a book like Trout Fishing in America has more to teach me than a Bible or the great classics. But I read the Bible and the classics to put Trout Fishing in America in context. The Bible and the classics formed the civilization I live in and, in many ways, influence the way I have to live in this world. Brautigan’s book, however, shows me that I can live in this world the great books made any way I damn well want.