REVIEW by Tristan Hughes

NWR Issue 104

American Sycamore

by Karen Fielding

American Sycamore tells the story of Billy Sycamore, as seen through the eyes of his sister, Alice. A keen fly fisherman, the course of Billy’s life is changed forever after an encounter by the Susquehanna River with a door-to-door Bible salesman dressed as a Confederate general. This ‘general’ turns out to be a child molester and, though Billy narrowly escapes his clutches, he is haunted by the memory of him (together with the belief he has killed him). What follows is an account of Billy’s gradual descent, via a variety of eccentric jobs and excursions – from lightning rod salesman to the owner of a petting zoo – into mental illness, madness and, finally, suicide (and through it a return to his beloved river).

There is a rich and venerable tradition of riverine writing in American literature, not to mention a long line of troubled fishermen, from Hemingway’s Nick Adams to Paul in Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It. However, the obvious influence here is Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. This is evidenced in the faux-naïf voice of the novel’s narrator, Alice; in its quirky and (sometimes relentlessly) offbeat humour; in the fishing, of course; and, perhaps less fortunately, in its structure. Brautigan didn’t have much inclination for sustained narrative in his writing. The fragmented, episodic whimsy of Trout Fishing in America takes its cue from the classic American yarn or tall tale rather than the novel; it is a series of vignettes, a gently surreal prose ramble along the bank, with the trout left to swim about connecting the random dots. American Sycamore is stranded somewhere in between – halfway between a series of roughly and tenuously conjoined anecdotes and a novel – and the resulting fault lines are difficult to overlook...

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previous review: Over the Line
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