Trout Fishing in America writes a blog

12/05/2016 at 10:11 am (Book Reviews, Rose and Ken's Bookshelf)

From the Bookshelves of Rose and Ken:

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In the late 60’s and early 70’s, what self-identifying stalwart of the hippie lifestyle didn’t own a copy of this series of observations for the counterculture generation? Published in 1967, Brautigan generated simple musings in his own style, while borrowing heavily from Anderson, Hemingway, Heller, Kesey and Vonnegut. Delivering short chapters with the unifying thread of trout fishing, the author explores the outrageous with the commonplace, the placid with the disturbed.

A first-person account of life on the road, a postmodern take on Kerouac’s tale of the Beats, Trout dips in and out of small towns where Americana litter the streets and homes of a changing country. With chapter titles like “A Waldon Pond for Winos” and “Trout Fishing With the FBI,” the book plays with ideas of nature and freedom, addiction and authority with a kind of whimsy that underlies the gravity of idealism lost. In the narrator’s travels, he finds that nothing is quite as it was, while the present has yet to fully form into something coherent that serves as a replacement of what came before.

Name-checking Teddy Roosevelt, Nelson Algren, John Dillinger, Hemingway, and the blues song C.C. Rider in the chapter titles, Brautigan traces the familiar and the influential figures of the past with a reverence that carries a bit of nostalgia, as well. America is changing so quickly, he seems to be saying, that it’s crucial to remember the importance of the early part of the twentieth century. When he writes, “Along with World War II and the Andrews sisters, the Zoot suit had been very popular in the early 40’s,” Brautigan is singing the virtues of a lost era, one that defined an earlier generation and was as much about fighting for freedom and singing for joy as it was about racial identity and the inequality and violence that surrounded it. When he decides that, “I guess they were all passing fads,” it is a lamentation, the realization that everything substantial and once-profound becomes simply what was. These parts of history are meant to be pushed aside, in order to make room for the next transgression or life-changing event in a century filled with them.

Filled with characters that come and go and then appear again, slightly changed, the slim book attempts to make sense of the old and the new, written with equal parts humanity and satire. There is a curiosity at work here, a wonderment that is characteristically American and entrenched in values that must have seemed antiquated in a world where Vietnam and the assassinations of MLK & RFK, along with the corruption of Watergate, made rose-colored reflection something unworthy and frivolous. Where there is definitely a rejection of the racist, stubborn, afraid-of-change belief system that permeates these small towns that Brautigan’s narrator discovers, there is also an embrace of nature and its singular purity. As long as trout can still be caught in the lakes and rivers of America—a simple pleasure that is not attached to politics or economics or human strife–then perhaps the evolving world, with all its social and cultural turmoil, can be found to be bearable. Maybe what Brautigan is trying to express in his book is that the consequential “fads” of the present will always give way to the next historic moment or state of mind, but those rivers full of trout will continue to run, a small, indelible fact of life that will remain constant and unchanged for this and future generations to come.

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The Howl of the Faraway Father

06/08/2016 at 6:04 pm (Book Reviews, Novel Excerpts, Rose and Ken's Bookshelf)

This is the first (of many) book reviews of counter-culture classics that the adult characters in Bear would have read prior to the time when the action of the novel takes place: summer of 1976.

I chose Allen Ginsburg‘s epic poem Howl as one of the books Thomas O’Neill — the absent father of the story who left Berkeley for NY when Stephen was six, and Demian was barely two — would have most definitely read, dog-eared, carried around with him, and tried to emulate with his own poetry.

“He packed a U.S. Army duffel bag with a few belongings (ironically, he had dodged the draft and his duty to country, but used the military’s supplies to flee his family), borrowed some money from relatives in Omaha and headed out of our lives, never to return.”

And now, my review:

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While Allen Ginsberg’s three-part, long poem “Howl” is borne of a particular moment in American history — the Joseph McCarthy congressional witch hunts; the cold war with Russia (which includes, to a degree, the Korean War); social and racial unrest — it is still possible to read and appreciate the work without the context of the time. The staccato beats of the stanzas, the raw and potent language, as well as the cross-country travels in the poem are all worth exploring in detail outside of the realm of Ginsberg’s cultural experience. With powerful imagery, specific American locales, and references to John Milton, William Blake, Neal Cassady and The Bible, the 1956 poem ushered in not only the age of Beat poetry, but a lasting piece of fury, compassion and madness.

The opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” sets in motion a seemingly endless list of unnamed, but mostly male, people whom the narrator apparently knew who lost their sanity in the streets, subways, back alleys and bars of America. Written as a single, run-on sentence, the rhythm scheme is structured as mini-tales, each passage of a new, mind-blowing experience beginning simply with “who,” connecting back to that first line of the poem. The sense of dislocation within familiar terrain is the theme repeated throughout, with places in the heartland like Laredo, Texas and Arkansas as sinister and terrifying as Chicago and New York City. The people of the narrator’s generation come from and travel to all points on the U.S. map, but share the common states of sorrow and confusion, unable to feel grounded within landscapes that no longer hold the same security and dependency that they once did. When the “angelheaded hipsters […] / […] bare their brains to Heaven under the El” and “[drink] turpentine in Paradise Alley,” while others “whore through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars,” the America that once made sense is transformed into a jumble of seedy and depressed places where screaming at God, poisoning oneself, and having meaningless sex for an almighty, capitalistic dollar is the current norm.

Time, space, eternity, the universe and Plato are invoked throughout the narrator’s journey across America, allowing Ginsberg to delve into the big questions asked by man, albeit without attempting to directly answer any of them. He is ambitious in his reachings, detailing the concerns and experiences of an entire generation, his only judgments coming in the form of labeling the various acts performed as the actions of an insane group of people. He then follows the list of his generation’s misdeeds with a section devoted to Moloch, invoking the biblical Canaanite who also shows himself in poems by Coleridge and Milton.

The third and final section addresses Carl Solomon, a real-life friend to Ginsberg, to whom the poem is dedicated. It continues the societal course of madness to its logical conclusion, with Solomon in a Rockland, N.Y. mental hospital receiving treatment for the destruction of his, the best, mind.

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