By Richard Brautigan
New York: A Delta Book, Dell Publishing Company, 1967
112 pagess

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2010

This book is general regarded as a bit of a masterpiece by a (then) relatively unknown beat writer, Richard Brautigan. It is billed as a novel, but is one of the stranger novels I have ever read. It seems that Trout Fishing In America is actually the name of characters in the novel, thus humans of that name. At other times it is a place in America, a generalized term for things which aren’t “real” but sort of idealized entities. There isn’t really a plot in any ordinary sense, and it doesn’t read like the form of literature that I would recognize as a “novel.” Actually it’s more like prose-poetry, or sketches of his strange world.

Nonetheless it was quite fun to read. This is a case where it was a bit of a disadvantage to come to this claimed classic 43 years after it made its debut and won its accolades. A significant part of what made it so noteworthy was the uniqueness of the sort of absurdity of its structure and the use of what is normally an activity or topic as the name of the characters and places. If one were to today come to the book to read it as this classic that paved new roads at a particular time, then it might well have been more impressive. I didn’t. I just picked it up since I’d heard about it, but never read it, and was just looking to read a challenging and good novel. Challenging it was, but I’m just not so sure that the “good” part works as well these 43 years later.

Brautigan does seem to really know his trout fishing (as activity not as a person or place) and I have the strong sense he knew many relatively remote streams and places to fish. He does treat us to some wonderful names of trout fishing locations. I got a kick out of that.

The novel is like a group of relatively disconnected episodes, but not quite episodes of “reality,” but perhaps “enhanced” reality, or wildly imaginative reality. The main character is often either drunk or talking about having been drunk, so perhaps much of the inspiration of the novel came from an altered consciousness, if not from alcohol, or perhaps from something else. However, for this rather literally-minded reader that make the novel even more challenging, but I think I was fairly successful in letting go and embracing the reality he was presenting to me, though it was often quite difficult to figure out what that was.

I did have a few favorite passages I want to record here for myself, as reminders, if and when I come back to these notes:

I especially loved this “THE MAYOR OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY” since it gives a great example of Trout Fishing in America used as a name of Jack the Ripper’s CLOTHES.

London. On December 1, 1887; July 7, August 8, September 30, one day in the month of October and on the 9th of November, 1888; on the 1st of June, the 17th of July and the 10th of September 1889

The disguise was perfect.

Nobody ever saw him, except, of course, the victims. They saw him.

Who would have expected?

He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and blue jays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes.

He wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night.

Who would have expected?


Scotland Yard?


They were always a hundred miles away, wearing halibut- stalker hats, looking under the dust.

Nobody ever found out.

O, now he’s the Mayor of the Twentieth Century! A razor, a knife and a ukelele are his favorite instruments.

Of course, it would have to be a ukelele. Nobody else would have thought of it, pulled like a plow through the intestines.

The next passage I like so much is fairly “straight” writing about trout fishing. I like the passage as a great reminder of just what a wonderful writer he is, even when not playing with his “trout fishing in America” game.

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.

God-damn! 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.

Another short passage caught my attention since it was both marvelous writing, but illustrates the very different way that Brautigan thinks.

“Looks like it’s raining in Stanley,” I said, though I had never been in Stanley before. It is easy to say things about Stanley when you have never been there. We saw the road to Bull Trout Lake. The road looked good. When we reached Stanley, the streets were white and dry like a collision at a high rate of speed between a cemetery and a truck loaded with sacks of flour.

He also has a wonderful ability to write humor, and one story he tells illustrated this well for me. He was a young boy, working for an eccentric woman in his town who had him do various bits of yard work.

I cleaned out her rock garden and deported snakes whenever I found them on her place. She told me to kill them, but I couldn’t see any percentage in wasting a gartersnake. But I had to get rid of the things because she always promised me she’d have a heart attack if she ever stepped on one of them. So I’d catch them and deport them to a yard across the street, where nine old ladies probably had heart attacks and died from finding those snakes in their toothbrushes. Fortunately, I was never around when their bodies were taken away.

One of the last passages in the book brought to mind that perhaps the whole book could be regarded as a sort of surreal travelogue. It is all about his travels, and as this late passage emphasizes, it is certainly surreal. Viewed as a travelogue, however, does bring up one aggravating fact for me. He travelled always with his son and the mother of that son. But, he never gives her a name, only calling her “my woman.” Despite that, this last passage is yet another example of the exoticness of his writing.

My friend’s place was a shack right beside a huge fireplace where there had once been a great mansion during the l920s, built by a famous movie actor. The mansion was built before there was even a road down at Big Sur. The mansion had been brought over the mountain on the backs of mules, strung out like ants, bringing visions of the good life to the poison oak, the ticks and the salmon.

The mansion was on a promontory, high over the Pacific. Money could see farther in the 1920s, and one could look out and see whales and the Hawaiian Islands and the Kuomintang in China.

The mansion burned down years ago.

The actor died.

His mules were made into soap.

His mistresses became bird nests of wrinkles.

Now only the fireplace remains as a sort of Carthaginian homage to Hollywood.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett