W.T. Lhamon on 'Trout Fishing in America'
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Break and Enter to Breakaway: Scotching Modernism in the Social Novel of the American Sixties

by W.T. Lhamon, Jr.?
Florida State University

All reports to the contrary, much of the very best American fiction of the sixties is social and political. Just to tick off some of important examples is impressive: Heller's Catch 22; Pynchon's V. and The Crying of Lot 49; Roth's? Portnoy's Complaint; Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America; Mailer's The Armies of the Night, An American Dream, and Why Are We in Vietnam?; Cleaver's? near-novel, Soul on Ice. One might also add Baraka's? (Jones's) Tales. Whatever else they do to the form of the novel, to language, to the sense of personal psychology projected by fiction, to the notion of what constitutes coherence in life and art — these reports all have very much at their centers a sense of the obscene presence of American institutions. Most often their authors do not put this presence directly, as they might have in the thirties, but rather indirectly, metaphorically, hysterically, as in Portnoy's problems with his mother, Yossarian's inability to get a straight answer, the way the FBI watches trout streams, or the way Mailer shows men visiting themselves upon women (namely, Ruta and Cherry) in his so-called and so often misunderstood sexual politics. Politics in these novels? It has come back into American literature much more pervasively than ever before, but not so dogmatically: felt but not seen. This is the difference between ideology and hegemony as it occurs in fiction: Portnoy screams in pain now; costumes and quick changes are important for Brautigan; Mailer talks of cancer, sex, and the drugs he takes (or took), and the clothes of his demonstrators are bizarre. The political pressure of the society is felt on the body in this new literature, has penetrated that far into what used to be called the private realm, but which is now not even private because it is indistinguishable from the public. Mailer, realizing this, tries to merge a kind of commercialized private self — a self which can be thought of as "private," since so seemingly personal and obsessed — with his public image.

Novels like Trout Fishing in America and Portnoy's Complaint, since they assume the currency of a repressive fact, render the result of that fact: the pain and the bizarre alternative. These novels, even the life of the whole decade, might be criticized for not answering that which is necessary to know. Meaning: we don't have the categories to recognize the society in these novels. The society is undifferentiated, with no attention to class. But that is only befitting the kind of perception that is instead very real here: that the official culture, not the middle-class per se, is the totalizing force. Seen hostilely from the old categories, the pressure which drives the characters is too complex, or too unspeakable, or too omnipresent and omnipotent, too much an undissociable burden to make clear. Seen sympathetically within their own terms, these novels recall the poster that has since popped up in book and gift shops: there is an only barely discernible, very fuzzy picture of the ex-President of the United States and the caption, in large letters, reads, "Let Me Make Myself Perfectly Clear." Those who buy that poster are far clearer, much more in focus than the picture to which they respond with a smirk or a smile. The novels are like that. The society is as present as the President was, and as indistinct.

See how this works in Trout Fishing in America. In fact, one might read this novel as a test case, for it would be hard to name another novel of the sixties that seems more ruthlessly to hide its social involvement; if Brautigan's fancies can be seen fruitfully as sociopolitical, then perhaps others can too. Recall the chapter, "In the California Bush," a title which sets the locale both physically in the hills over San Francisco, and psychologically in the realm of the dirty joke. For Brautigan, what happens is the dirtiest joke of all. Brautigan's narrator and a man named Pard are sharing a cabin in the hills with two women. Pard and his woman sleep inside, Brautigan with his mate outside under the apple tree. The scene comes toward the end of a book devoted to showing readers how to be free, how to create a warm place by living through fantasy and discriminating between harmless, harmful, and useful addictions (to Kool-Aid, to wine, to sex, to trout fishing). When all is working right, all sense of self fuses with the world: "my body was like birds sitting on a telephone wire strung out down the world, clouds tossing the wires carefully." And again, when all is going well, pure, fluid, beautiful stasis is present: "the pages of the book began to speed up and turn faster and faster until they were spinning like wheels in the sea." In these images, Brautigan's voice achieves a familiarity with all environs. He has said at one point, in a statement that could stand for his aesthetic, "I practically had to lay my vision like a drowned orange on the mud puddle." No ambition, no regrets; nothing oppresses because the voice is everything, or is in place with everything as it is supposed to be.

But Pard is different, and Pard's difference bespeaks a difficulty if the book is going to show how one acquires this ease in the world. Brautigan tells about hearing the sounds of Pard and his woman making love:

One morning last week, part way through the dawn, I awoke under the apple tree, to hear a dog barking and the rapid sound of hoofs coming toward me. The millennium? An invasion of Russians all wearing deer feet?

I opened my eyes and saw a deer running straight at me. It was a buck with large horns. There was a police dog chasing after it.

Arfwowfuck! Noisepoundpoundpoundpoundpoundpound! POUND! POUND!

The deer didn't swerve away. He just kept running straight at me, long after he had seen me, a second or two had passed.

Arfwowfuck! Noisepoundpoundpoundpoundpoundpound! POUND! POUND!

He ran around the house, circling the john, with the dog hot after him. They vanished over the hillside, leaving streamers of toilet paper behind them, flowing out and entangled through the bushes and vines.

Then along came the doe. She started up the same way, but not moving as fast. Maybe she had strawberries in her head...

The doe stopped in her tracks, twenty-five feet away and turned and went down around the eucalyptus tree.

Well, that's how it's gone now for days and days. I wake up just before they come. I wake up for them in the same manner as I do for the dawn and the sunrise. Suddenly knowing they're on their way.

This passage illustrates how the escape, the free place, is accessible. Brautigan demonstrates how to be free with his language, disconnections, metaphors (Pard is "a buck with large horns"). But this availability of freedom causes the problem that anyone can pretend to be free; Russians can wear deer feet, can put on the disguise of Trout Fishing in America. Just so, in an earlier chapter, the Mayor of the Twentieth Century turns out to be Jack the Ripper wearing a costume of "mountains on his elbows and bluejays on the collar of his shirt." This Jack the Ripper, although coming directly from the urban reality of the industrial revolution, London in 1887-89, plays a ukulele as one would in the rustic and playful world Brautigan constructs; but he pulls that ukulele "like a plow through the intestines." So, some people will come to the warm place to exploit it viciously.

Pard is not quite so bad. Evidently he wants really to be a part of the trout fishing scene, through and through. But the residue of the repressive world, his earlier Army experience, his macho relationship with women, is still unexpurgated; that police dog is still chasing him. His sex is noisy, fast, and violent. The dog, Pard's surprise that it is still after him, and Pard's sort of relations are all connected in one expletive — "Arfwowfuck!" The resulting union is a big deal: dog, buck, and doe running through the woods, chasing each other, leaving streamers of toilet paper behind them. Leaving their marks, they are not able to relax, spinning like wheels in the sea. Pard achieves a kind of infamous American male climax. The doe, Pard's woman, however, never rises to that reward, wandering "down around the eucalyptus tree." The problem is truly not all Pard's, for the girl's mind is elsewhere: "maybe she had strawberries in her head." In any case, there is little to be done about this predicament because Brautigan sees it as natural; he wakes up to the noise of their sex every morning as he would to the sunrise. But Brautigan veils the completeness of the way Pard has deeply absorbed the repressive relationships of the society. That is, the humor and a kind of imagery which is so overly particular that it is not specific at all serve to gentle the point.

The conclusions from this scene, then, are that though freedom from society is possible, the very accessibility of the freedom pollutes it. Further, even for those who genuinely want to escape the routines of city life (or just routines), the process of expurgation is virtually impossible. The society has affected everyone, will sneak into dreams, into fantasies, and into the most private, most loving moments, hounding them into wild violence; or, to women, society will deny the same qualitative mastery given men, and will leave its women trailing downhill. Society is not so much out there for all to see, but marked indelibly inside, not very often seen. For all of society's invisibility, therefore, it is perhaps all the more pervasively present.

Nevertheless, Brautigan refuses to allow this presence to be serious, even when it is — especially when it is. His style radically mollifies the events it discusses. Pard can't escape; but Brautigan, while describing how the man is filled up and dogged down by America, accepts that and makes it magic with his nonchalance. This poised level-headedness — recognition of fact and assertion of fancy — creates the striking mood of the book. The hounding presence of society here is thoroughly oppressive; that's what the content says. Yet the form, with deflecting metaphors and flippant tone, defuses the possible anger at such content. But defuses it how much? Brautigan just deflects enough of the anger, files away enough of the edge, so that society can saturate the book. The formal bending of the content is what allows it to soak in all the more. The actual veiledness and indistinctness of the society is what provides for its being so pervasive. There is an undeniable social context to the fornications of the sixties.

Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature? 2.3
Winter 1975: 289-306

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