Billy Collins on Richard Brautigan: “An American Brand of Surrealism”

Poet Billy Collins has written an introduction for a new edition of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, a 1960s bestseller that ranked with Steppenwolf and The Hobbit in every hippie’s paperback library. The book cover photo of a mustachioed Brautigan surely set a fashion standard for back-to-the-land types. “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,” Collins says in an NPR interview.

According to Collins, Brautigan’s writing wasn’t just hip stoner babble, but a “disruptive and surrealistic vision” that turned on a generation of readers otherwise weaned on traditional linear fiction:

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… 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. Listen/Read more.

As an example of what he means, Collins quotes this passage from Trout Fishing in America:

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.

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