I was feeling a little down lately, and old, and depressed.
Prescription? Run to the bookshelf, and find my 1970s copy of “Trout Fishing in America.”
This (if you don’t know) is a little shapeless novel by Richard Brautigan, published in 1967. The chapters are anywhere from one to four pages long. It really doesn’t matter what order you read them in (although you should read the final two chapters in their place, last of all). It’s kind of about trout fishing in America, although it’s kind of not. The narrator roams all over the western United States, fishing in trout streams, describing small towns, rural locations. There’s a character named “Trout Fishing in America,” who seems to be a person, but he’s also (literally) Trout Fishing in America. There’s also a character named “Trout Fishing in America Shorty,” who’s a foul-mouthed guy in a wheelchair (sometimes).
My friend Ardy gave me my first Brautigan novel when we were both in high school: “In Watermelon Sugar.” It’s a slightly more traditional novel, strange and spacey, but haunting. (I think you had to be there in the 1960s/1970s to really get these novels.)
I went on to read all of Brautigan’s hippie output: his other novel, “A Confederate General at Big Sur” (which is very good), and his early poetry (collected as something like “The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster”). There’s a wonderful early poem sequence – “The Galilee Hitch-Hiker” – that’s really excellent.
But now you have to explain what it was like in the 1960s / 1970s.
I tried to explain this twice over the past few months. I failed both times. Both people thought that “Trout Fishing in America” sounded like a stupid concept for a book. One of them was very young, in her early twenties. She invoked the Tet Offensive at me, for god’s sake! (Does she think the Tet Offensive was begun by American troops?) Anyway, I said to her: “We thought, in the Sixties and Seventies, that the world was actually getting better.”
“Sure,” she said scornfully.
“I’m serious,” I said, feeling suddenly very hippyish. “We thought we were changing the world. Eighteen-year-olds could vote. The Vietnam war was grinding to an end, and we were doing something about it. There was something called the Equal Rights Amendment (which came to a bad end, but that’s a different story). Roe versus Wade happened.”
“And then what?” she challenged me.
Oh, kids, she was right. We didn’t follow through. Reagan happened. George H. W. Bush happened.
We thought the revolution would be self-perpetuating.
We were wrong.
(Go read “Trout Fishing in America.” Maybe it’ll inspire you. Or at least make you feel that there's hope for the future after all.)