NOVEMBER 10, 2015
WHAT IF YOU set out to follow in the footsteps of a literary hero from your youth and discovered things in his work that you had never noticed before, things that were not only unappealing but also morally questionable? Let’s say he’s a misogynist and racist jerk. Let’s say that makes you uneasy; you find it difficult to separate the artist from the art. Is it possible to continue to enjoy his work or do you write off your hero and toss the lot in the rubbish pile?
In her memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me: A Literary Pilgrimage Through Brautigan’s America, author Allison Green faces just such a conundrum. In 2008, Green picked up the Sunday travel section of The New York Times and read Lawrence Downes’s piece about making a pilgrimage to Manzanillo, Mexico, to summon author and counterculture icon Ken Kesey, who had once holed up there for months evading incarceration for marijuana possession. A sidebar suggested three books that might call readers to the open road, including Richard Brautigan’s 1967 cult novel Trout Fishing in America. Green’s curiosity was piqued: as a schoolgirl, she’d read Brautigan obsessively. His spare and quirky prose presented an aesthetic and a time (the Age of Aquarius) during which she would have liked to have come of age.
Trout Fishing in America is a humorous and peculiar lament on the loss of pastoral America told in a string of anecdotes by a narrator traveling through Idaho. It was the one Brautigan novel Green had kept from her youth. Yet when she retrieved it from the attic shelves, she found herself turned off by the story’s blatant sexism. The narrator’s wife is referred to only as the woman who travels with me; their child is simply called the baby. These characters were modeled after Brautigan’s own wife and daughter — and along with questioning his values and attitude, Green comes around to confronting her own:
When, years later, I had to get rid of most of my books to move east, I must have decided that Trout Fishing in America would be the one to represent all that I had read and loved as a teenager. But who had that girl been? And did she notice the woman on the cover had no name?
Thus begins the journey that ultimately yields Green’s slight and subtle memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. From Seattle, where she has lived for several years, Green — a lesbian and feminist writer — hit the road with her wife, Arlene, traveling backwards along the Oregon Trail with a plan to visit some of the locations in Brautigan’s work, including Stanley Basin, Big Redfish Lake, and, particularly, Little Redfish Lake, where he had camped with his family.
Green pens a story much like other recent contributions to the canon of literary pilgrimages, such as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. These bibliomemoirs, all three, are so well executed it doesn’t matter if you’ve read the original works — and they all share a similar theme: the pursuit of self-knowledge and personal transformation through exploration of the hero. The difference might be that Green is not writing her travelogue out of admiration; instead, she is determined to try to understand what it was about Brautigan that she once loved. Is it possible, she wonders, for her to relate to him today?
Retracing his tracks allows her to “grapple” with Brautigan’s indifference to the female character in Trout Fishing, as well as her own. But her book is not so much an indictment of the author, as it is a thoughtful reflection on the paradoxical era in which his novel was created, and to a larger extent, how she herself has been shaped by the past: by family heritage, by her coming out, by the places she has lived, by her relationship to literature, and, of course, by her struggles with writing. Now a grown woman, long past her fascination with the bohemian culture of the 1960s, rereading both Trout Fishing and her adolescent diaries offers her a way to question the nuances, contradictions, and hypocrisies of that era. She is able to probe how she felt as part of an “in-between” generation, yearning, but too young, to be a hippie. At the time, it was Brautigan who gave her a sense of belonging.
The Ghosts Who Travel With Me rolls out in small subchapters, more like diary entries, of one or two pages of seemingly disconnected sketches; later, though, we see the subchapters come together as a whole. In one essay, “Out of Eden,” Green explores America’s changing culture in the 1970s, when Tom Wolfe was warning America about its self-involved older baby boomers, while Carter wore sweaters and talked about conservation. The mood was “bleak,” Green explains:
In a cultural and adolescent funk I took refuge in Brautigan. He inhabited an America of hope and imagination, of surreal but engrossing dreams. And what exactly was the nature of those dreams? That was one of the things I went to Idaho to find out.
Idaho does not make a physical appearance in Trout Fishing in America before chapter 16, but it is with us from the very first line of Green’s book, in which a Seattle barista asks her, “Why Idaho?” It so happens that Idaho is Green’s literary and ancestral homeland: her mother grew up there, several of her relatives died there, and she recalls attending funerals and visiting their graves. Again and again, for insight and meaning she returns to her upbringing, her childhood dreams, her journals, and then to Brautigan’s work; and by doing so, succinctly illustrates the paradoxes of American culture and sensibility. Early in the book, in an essay titled “Trout Frying in America,” she writes about the tradition of the live sourdough pancake starter that her grandmother kept for generations, juxtaposing it with stereotypical icons meant to symbolize American authenticity.
Women kept on feeding it and feeding it and passing it along to their daughters, and I was the lucky child in the late 1960s who stood nose to counter and watched my grandmother pour in this and sift in that and stir briskly with a wooden spoon and ladle onto the griddle and flip when the bubbles rose to the top. I like to imagine I spread my sourdough pancakes with butter and Vermont maple syrup, but actually I knifed a big chunk of margarine out of the tub and onto my pancakes and followed this with syrup out of the plastic Aunt Jemima bottle. This was when Aunt Jemima wore that kerchief and made white America comfortable.
So the reader is ushered from the soul of the sourdough starter to the soul-sucking enterprise of mass production and consumerism — and the effect is jarring. Much like a character in Trout Fishing in America, this time with Green as our guide, we feel the weight of America’s progress. In this way, her memoir echoes Brautigan’s lament and the truth of his predictions. And this is where the books intersect: both authors were born in-between generations, both felt lost and confused, and both, in their writings, search for meaningful connections via the lens of nostalgia.
Green further moors her personal history within a wider literary and historical framework by recalling family trips to Birmingham and Montgomery in the 1960s, and touching on important political, social, and cultural events of the era. Though the place and the times perhaps deserve more attention, hers is nonetheless an effective and eloquent extrapolation of personal meaning from the historic, as in her piece about a teary séance to summon JFK’s spirit:
I think we were crying for more than our young selves. I think we had absorbed the sadness of our parents who held us in their arms when the man they’d felt such passion for died. And the despair they felt, five years later, when those other beacons of hope were taken from this earth forever.
Our séances didn’t call forth an assassinated president; our séances called forth our parents sorrow.
But the memoir is best when Green focuses on Brautigan and her struggle to come to terms with what he projected into the world. Over and over again, she returns to his work, as with In Watermelon Sugar, first published in 1968, about a commune and a landscape that is always changing. Green found the language in the book magical, “like a bell tolling,” she writes, and she mimicked Brautigan’s simple syntax in her journals
The book as an object was itself a distillation of what I perceived to be hippie culture — and this was the mid-1970s, so the culture was waning. Hippies meant plain but beautiful women and earnest, artistic men. The black and white of the photo signaled an authentic aesthetic, simple and true. The design, with the first sentence of the novel on the cover, meant anything could happen. And the book was small and slender, like a poem in my pocket. I took the sixties home with me.
So, Brautigan became her literary hero: affected as she was by his writing, she added his name to a list of people she wanted to meet before she died. Decades later, she continues to be “more interested in sentences and paragraphs than in narrative momentum.” And we can see Brautigan’s influence here: The Ghosts Who Travel with Me is written and structured in a style similar to his, as if she were tracing Trout Fishing in America’s patterns with his ghost by her side.
Though the random order of Green’s stories and her brief poetic digressions can sometimes be hard to follow, they often led to canny observations. Near the end, for instance, she analyzes Brautigan’s “deceptively plain sentences” for two pages, noting “his novels are not dramatic,” and then swiftly admitting that her poetic prose and insufficient plot development may have been the reason for three failed manuscripts of her own. She didn’t want to, or couldn’t, write fiction, she surmises, and perhaps that was the genesis of her trip, “a return to the source of inspiration for all [her] writing.”
But all this started with her discomfort with Brautigan’s chauvinism. Sure enough, when Green searches the interwebs for clues about Brautigan’s attitudes toward women, the word “misogyny” pops up again and again. Female bloggers write apologetic concessions, claiming a “tad of schoolboy misogyny […] but benignly so” or “He can do no wrong (apart from the whiffs of misogyny that I can try to pretend are ‘of the era’).” I’m willing (sort of) to acknowledge that guys were less enlightened in the 1960s. I was there, I remember. But a part of me wanted to see Green take Brautigan to task. So it was heartening to see her, in a faint way, implicate him by unpacking those ideas:
All of the more egregious depictions of women come from the mouths of characters who are not the narrator. They are “colorful,” these men. They are hard-living, hard-drinking, rude and crude storytellers. Maybe I could excuse Brautigan for merely reporting, without judgment, their dialogue. But that would ignore his transformation of their words as he affixed them to the page […] These hard-bitten story-types may use colorful language, but I’m guessing the exact combination of words here is Brautigan’s, not anyone he ever went fishing with.
Eventually, Green unearths the name of the narrator’s wife in Trout — the woman who travels with me — and digs up an ironic twist: behind Brautigan was Virginia Adler Brautigan, married to the author in 1957, and mother of their daughter, Ianthe. Now Ginny Aste, she lives in Hawaii, where she ran for legislature in 2000, and is an activist for community development and environmental concerns. “A woman who,” Green writes, “gets things done” — a delightful refutation of Aste’s fictional “prop” status, this discovery nicely flips Brautigan’s stereotype on its head.
But is Green giving up on him or letting him off the hook? It’s complicated, of course. Or, at least, Green makes it seem as if it’s complicated. The discoveries that surface — demonstrating the dichotomy between his fiction and his reality — push her to keep fishing. She combs through several of his chapters, identifying the words, sentiments, attitudes, and conditions of the era and its writings that make her uncomfortable. In one such chapter, “Trout Fishing in America Nib,” (about a pen) the narrator tells of an impoverished man who takes a job chopping down trees in eastern Oregon. Sleeping on the floor of his employer’s home, he gets “laid” by a heavy set “Indian squaw,” and spends his pay on a gold-nibbed pen (because it has magical qualities) and a “good-looking, young Negro whore.” The narrator, after hearing the laborers story, daydreams about a different kind of pen, “a trout fishing in America pen.” Green explains the intent is to first make us chuckle and later laugh, except the treatment of the women “snags the chuckle in our throats.” Green writes:
Is it fair to ask what exactly was known in 1967? What exactly could have been known by a liberal white writer in the late sixties and his, presumably, liberal white editors at several presses? And his many white readers? Maybe it doesn’t matter what they could or could not have known; what they understood of the world is no more nor less important than what Others knew and understood of the world.
I’d like to think that if I’d been born in 1790, I would have protested the Indian Removal Act. Some white people did. I like to think I would have been an abolitionist. Some white people were. But at twelve years old, reading Brautigan, what stayed with me were not the women in the story of the Christmas tree man, but the rivers and wildflowers drawn by the Trout Fishing in America nib. Now the ink seeps through the pages of the book, blotting out whole paragraphs and dripping through the blurbs of the back cover.
Regardless of how we might feel about Brautigan, this kind of reflection makes us root for Green. She’s not out to judge or condemn: rather, she is calling herself out, coming to terms with, and recognizing how her love for Brautigan, for his work and words, was less critical than it is now — her once impressionable self has changed and evolved out of her own misconceptions. Her empathy and generosity toward her subject frees her to create a space in which Brautigan can be Brautigan, with all his faults and prejudices, while preserving, rather than diminishing, his importance in her writing and reading life. She makes a choice: to honor him for the way he inspired her.
When Green finally reaches the Little Redfish Lake campsite where Brautigan and his family slept, she describes the scene — a clear view of the mountain range — and her sense of epiphany with the same kind of melancholy that permeates Trout Fishing in America:
Waves slipped onto shore and slipped back. A bird took a dirt bath in a dried puddle. Arline and I listened as my words rippled into the near silence.
Thirty-odd years after reading Trout Fishing in America and living in the world Brautigan had created on the page, I’d found the place in the world where the real man had pitched his tent. I could see Brautigan sitting at the picnic table, composing the chapter about the unhappy surgeon on the typewriter he’d brought on the trip. I saw him write that line about America, “often only a place in the mind.” And it occurred to me that while I had spent my adolescence wishing I’d been born ten years earlier, old enough to be a hippie, Brautigan had wished he hadn’t missed an earlier, more pristine American wilderness. We both ached for a lost Eden, but in the end, he sat down at the picnic table and tried to make sense of the world he’d inherited: sparkling rivers, lively trout, materialistic Americans, a commodified paradise. He turned his contradictory experiences into poetry, into Trout Fishing in America. I’d followed the book all this way, into the heart of Idaho, to find that Brautigan’s paradise was not a place but an action: the making of art out of confusion.
Like a chant from Brautigan’s era, the longing for harmony and understanding are the core of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, along with a desire to acknowledge and reckon with one’s past, and one’s ghosts, whatever and whoever they are — even books. In this lovely articulation of the transformative power of literature, Allison Green has found her voice.