Brautigan's Surreal Story: 'Trout Fishing In America'

The book Trout Fishing in America was published in 1967 and became an instant cult favorite. Guest host Audie Cornish speaks with writer and former national poet laureate Billy Collins about the book's author, Richard Brautigan. Collins describes Brautigan's writing as an American form of surrealism.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of Richard Brautigan, an iconic writer from the '60s and the author of the book "Trout Fishing in America." The book title, which has inspired communes, a tribute band, and at one point, a teenager to legally adopt its name isn't really about fishing; although, it does wind its way around America's creeks, rivers and valleys. Throughout its 112 pages, the title appears as the name of a person, a place, an idea, leaving narrative conventions along the wayside.

"Trout Fishing in America" is being reissued with an introduction by Billy Collins, a writer and former National Poet Laureate who joins us now from our New York bureau.

Billy Collins, welcome.

Mr. BILLY COLLINS (Author, Poet Laureate): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

CORNISH: So in your introduction you talk about traveling in the same circles as Richard Brautigan back in San Francisco. Tell us about him. What was he like?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, I never met him personally. There were various spottings of him. He was very easy to spot, and I describe him in the introduction as being a very tall fellow who combined hippie dress, colorful shirts and beads with 19 century pioneer clothes, including a waistcoat and boots, all topped by an enormous beat-up Western hat. He looked like a man who had just stepped out of the same pre-industrial America, whose passing he lamented in his fiction -post beatnik and pre-hippie.

He was thought of as a rather mysterious figure; a man that didnt say much but was doing something very peculiar in his writing.

CORNISH: He's been described as a little bit Beat generation, a little bit hippie generation, or a sort of bridge writer. And I'm wondering if you can give us a sense of what that meant?

Mr. COLLINS: I think he just fell between the generations. And I know from reading a book by his daughter, Ianthe, that he really didnt want to be identified with either. But he did give off a sense of being a guy from another time and I think in "Trout Fishing in America," one of the under songs in the book is a kind of lament for the passing of a 19 century, or even earlier pastoral America and its replacement by an industrial America.

CORNISH: Can you read that passage from the book?

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah. One of the features of the book is very peculiar metaphors. And in this little chapter in the beginning is basically a long comparison of trout to the American steel industry. I'll just read a paragraph here.

As a child, when did I first hear about trout fishing in America? From whom? I guess it was a stepfather of mine. Summer of 1942. The old drunk told me about trout fishing. When he could talk, he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious and intelligent metal. Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when he told me about trout fishing. I'd like to get it right. Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat. Imagine Pittsburgh. A steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings, trains and tunnels. The Andrew Carnegie of Trout! Explanation point.

CORNISH: For people who aren't so familiar with his style, can you talk about what were some of hallmarks of this particular book, and I guess of Brautigan?

Mr. COLLINS: The book "Trout Fishing in America" refuses to be a novel. There's no kind of consistent character development, or chronology or a plot, really. And it also refuses in a way to be a book. For example, the first chapter of "Trout Fishing in America" is a discussion of its own cover. It has a strange self-awareness of itself as a book. And the other aspect that's very consistent is the sense of very bizarre comparisons. He talks about furniture that looks like baby food.

CORNISH: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: And he talks about an old woman who tends a huge wood furnace like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter. And some of the comparisons are quite moving and others are just plain bizarre. He describes a woodcock, a bird that has a long bill on it, that's like putting a fire hydrant into a pencil sharpener then pasting it on to a bird. It's a kind of an American brand of surrealism that I think was very new at the time.

CORNISH: It was published in 1967 and what kind of impact did it have then?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, it had - I think it had a huge impact. It achieved a kind of instant cult status, not just for adolescents but I think for a whole generation that was weaned on a much more traditional kind of fiction. And I think it also had to do with something of the drug culture, that this was a kind of refracted and drugged way of looking at things. It was a disruptive and surrealistic vision.

CORNISH: Is there anything about today's generation and about the kinds of media that's out there that you think lends itself to trout fishing?

Mr. COLLINS: If we suffer from a kind of cultural ADD, in that we're, you know, jumping from one thing to another, and there's quite a bit written about how Googling is changing people's reading habits, this is a very episodic book. It jumps from one thing to the other. It's not interested in kind of long consistent thread of meaning, and in that sense, it seems perfectly fitted to our computer times.

CORNISH: Billy Collins, former United States poet laureate. He wrote the new introduction for the reissued book Trout Fishing in America, and he joined us from our New York bureau. Billy Collins, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you.

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