Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967) French title: La pêche à la truite en Amérique.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

How can I describe Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan? It’s all about trout fishing and yet not at all. It’s a novella made of a series of vignettes coming from a camping trip in Idaho that Brautigan took with his wife and daughter in the summer 1961. The book was published in 1967 and became a bestseller.

It’s a literary gem that mixes glimpses of the life of the Beat Generation in San Francisco, an homage to an America that the 1960s will leave behind, a playful but effective way to show how our civilization based on mass consumption tamed nature and took over, inserting itself in our minds and in remote areas. Anecdotes reveal a bit of Brautigan’s childhood. He was dirt poor and fishing and hunting had truly been a means to put food on the table.

Trout Fishing in America is not openly about ecology but it is a quirky love note to nature and a roundabout way to show its destruction due to men. This passage made me think of companies and officials who claim that they will protect nature while during business but in fact won’t:

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.

Our consumer world pervades everywhere, camping in our minds and filtering even our impression of nature. Brautigan says it with this fishing trip in a remote creek, he uses a comparison to telephone booths, bringing the industrial world into the wild because his brain is saturated with it:

The creek was made narrow by little green trees that grew too close together. The creek was like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out. Sometimes when I went fishing in there, I felt just like a telephone repairman, even though I did not look like one. I was only a kid covered with fishing tackle, but in some strange way by going in there and catching a few trout, I kept the telephones in service. I was an asset to society.

He seems to tell us that our mind is colonized to the point that he fails to find any other comparison that one to our city world. He also feels the need to justify his fishing trip as useful to society, a maintenance service of some sort. A man must be rightfully employed.

A story is about a discussion at a campsite with an old doctor:

He told me that he would give up the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America. “I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off six thousand dollars worth of bad debts,” he said. I was going to say that a sick person should never under any conditions be a bad debt, but I decided to forget it.

America, universal healthcare was never in your blood, was it?

As the vignettes go on, Trout Fishing in America becomes a concept, marketing invading the pages like weed. Sometimes it becomes a pattern, a playful game, like Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau. Unexpected literary references pop up at the corner of a sentence or of a paragraph. It’s always irreverent, a way to tell us that we should treat books and writers casually, like old friends.

“The dishes can wait,” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.

Ironic references to iconic writers, books or films appear in the text.

Later on, probably, a different voice will be dubbed in. It will be a noble and eloquent voice denouncing man’s inhumanity to man in no uncertain terms. “Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour.”

But most of all, Trout Fishing in America is fun. It’s a book full of comic lines, play-on-words and odd but stunning comparisons. Poor cutthroat trout are associated to Jack the Ripper…

I’ve always liked cutthroat trout. They put up a good fight, running against the bottom and then broad jumping. Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper.

… now the visual of Stanley…

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.

I can imagine the old lady of this vignette, cooking in her old house.

She cooked on a woodstove and heated the place during the winter with a huge wood furnace that she manned like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.

Brautigan’s observations are poetic and full of unexpected imagery but when he writes about everyday life, he adopts a simple prosaic Hemingwayan tone:

We went over to a restaurant and I had a hamburger and my woman had a cheeseburger and the baby ran in circles like a bat at the World’s Fair.

Trout Fishing in America is an extraordinary piece of literature, in every sense of the word extraordinary. It’s short but it took me three weeks to read it, to sip it, to enjoy each vignette and wait for the right reading time to fully enjoy it. It is about nature, our destruction of it, a disappearing way-of-life, the final taking-over of consumer society, a direct access to Brautigan’s life, an ode to the Beat Generation, a playful relationship to art and literature. It showcases a brilliant, poetic unusual mind.

And most of all, his quest of America ends up with this statement:

We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.

Highly recommended.

  1. May 24, 2020 at 10:24 am

    This sounds stunning! All the quotes you picked are so witty and evocative. I would never have thought to read this because of the fishing, but you’ve pointed out it’s about so much more. Sadly the observations about environmental damage will still be relevant, even more so.


    • May 24, 2020 at 10:30 am

      Forget about the trout fishing side, that’s not the point, really.
      It’s a wonderful, wonderful book.
      It made me think of Oulipo and Surrealist poets.
      Sign it up for next year’s NADIM? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. May 24, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    Wonderful post, Emma – you really capture the magic of this book! I’m a bit of a Brautigan obsessive – I first read him in my teens. And I had a complete chronological re-read of his work pre blog. I may have to pick him up again soon…


    • May 24, 2020 at 2:55 pm

      Thank you. I’d be curious to read your review of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. May 24, 2020 at 4:00 pm

    “Surrealism in America,” yep, this is the real thing. You might enjoy Brautigan’s poems, too. They are not so different than his prose. Fewer words per page, I guess.


    • May 24, 2020 at 8:59 pm

      I’m not comfortable with reading poetry in English, I miss out too much. I’ll see if there are editions in the two languages.


  4. May 24, 2020 at 4:32 pm

    I read heaps of Brautigan in my university years and though I own a couple I’ve never read him since. You capture his spirit exactly as I remember it. A great writer and a wonderful review.


    • May 24, 2020 at 9:00 pm

      I knew you had read him, I’m not surprised at all by your comment. 🙂
      Thanks for saying I managed to “capture his spirit”, it’s not an easy book to write about. (I tried not to think about all the academics who have written papers about it before)


  5. Vishy
    May 24, 2020 at 9:53 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! This looks like a wonderful book! I somehow had an impression that you had reviewed it before 🙂 The author and the title sounded so familiar. Will add this to my reading list. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Loved all the quotes you shared.


    • May 24, 2020 at 10:11 pm

      There’s been a lot of books about trout fishing in the last twelve months in my billets but this one is unique and not that much about actual fishing.
      It’s a wonderful book and I think you’d like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. May 26, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    I read this in school and cannot remember it at all. Possibly we didn’t even finish it. We read too many great books in that course and it might have paled a bit next to Gravity’s Rainbow. So, I’m glad for your review, I think I might have to read this again.


    • May 26, 2020 at 9:51 pm

      It’s a short book, not necessarily a quick read because it’s shame to rush through it. I hope you’ll like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. May 26, 2020 at 4:57 pm

    Wonderful review! I have to add it to my reading list


  8. buriedinprint
    May 28, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    He’s on my Must-Read list for this year, so I particularly enjoyed reading all the quotations you’ve included here. Do you read mostly on a device, so that it’s fairly easy to highlight and collect these glimpses of his prose, or do you have to collect/type out your notes some other way?


    • May 28, 2020 at 11:16 pm

      I have a kindle for books I read in English. It’s easier for me (built-in dictionary!)

      So, I can highlight all the passages I want and then collect the quotes.


  9. June 6, 2020 at 6:32 pm

    You had me laughing with your description of a book about trout fishing that’s not really about trout fishing! I doubt I would ever buy a book with that title, but from your description I WOULD enjoy the content. So clearly you cannot always judge a book just by the title


    • June 14, 2020 at 10:05 pm

      Sorry, I missed your comment!

      The title of this book is deceiving. I really recommend it though, it’s wonderful. Great sense of humour, excellent descriptions, original views on things, incredible anecdotes.
      A modern classic.


  1. February 7, 2021 at 10:40 am
  2. January 7, 2022 at 6:24 am

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