Book cover: Trout Fishing in America

Trout Fishing in America, by Richard Brautigan, Four Seasons Foundation, 1967, cover by Erik Weber

Author photos are usually tucked away on a book’s inside sleeve, or found propping up the text on the back.

It’s rare to have the author’s face staring out from a book’s front cover, and it’s pretty much unique to have that same cover discussed at length in the first chapter.

Then again Trout Fishing in America is an atypical book.

Richard Brautigan, the book’s author, bestrides the cover wearing a mix of 19th-century pioneer and 1960s hippie garb: a waistcoat with beads, a navy jacket with a paisley shirt, and a well-worn western hat. At his feet sits Michaela Le Grand, his “muse”.

The photograph, taken by Erik Weber, seems effortlessly to sum up the San Francisco experience in 1967, the “summer of love”.

The book itself is a teasing collection of fragments without plot or chronology. The title appears variously as the name of a person, a place and an idea.

As the first chapter suggests, it’s a weirdly self-aware book infused with a bucolic surrealism and mournful psychedelia that has very little to do with trout fishing and a lot to do with the lamenting of a passing pastoral America.

Brautigan, part beat poet, part hippie, part visionary naif, was well suited to this since, like his clothes, he seemed to span the ages. His writing defies categorisation.

Obscure it may have been but upon its publication it became an instant cult classic quickly selling more than 2m copies, and its influence spread into the strangest of places. A crater on the moon was named after one of the book’s characters, a folk-rock band goes by the same name as the book’s title, and at least one American has legally changed his name to “Trout Fishing in America”.

It’s 26 years since Brautigan committed suicide, but he still peers out from the cover of his strange and unclassifiable book, daring readers to see what Trout Fishing in America means to them.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.