Richard Brautigan Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Brautigan American Literature Analysis

The principal themes of Brautigan’s fiction are concerned with different aspects of the same classical philosophical question: What constitutes the good life? For example, in A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan explores the role of friendship in life—its obligations as well as its joys and tribulations. Lee Mellon, the book’s central character, is an entertaining ne’er-do-well whose complex, disorganized life brings the first-person narrator, Jesse, as much trouble as it does pleasure—perhaps more. Lee is inventive and funny, but his behavior and morals are an increasing strain on Jesse’s patience and sense of right and wrong. Lee’s spontaneity and his direct contact with life cement the friendship, but it is in almost constant danger of coming apart toward the close of the story.

Though the narrator feels “a sudden wave of vacancy go over me” when Lee treats another character harshly, Jesse remains loyal. One needs friends in this world, and sticks with them (the book implies) whether they are good or bad, right, or wrong. Such a youthful answer to one of life’s tougher questions did not go unnoticed by those readers wearing bell-bottomed trousers or miniskirts.

Brautigan was concerned as well with the individual’s need for a sense of community. In A Confederate General from Big Sur, community comes in the form of the little group that gathers around the bogus general Lee Mellon at his Big Sur encampment. Community nurtures the individual and helps both to create possibilities for each person and to establish the boundaries of his or her reality. Trout Fishing in America is concerned with this same question, though here the individual’s “community” is national rather than local.

In Watermelon Sugar, set in a fantasy-embroidered commune, is especially concerned with how life is best lived in relation to other lives. The community of iDEATH represents for Brautigan one answer to the problem of how men and women may relate meaningfully to one another within a social unit. Freedom, respect, and gentleness are all-important qualities of the sort of social construct that fosters growth and trust, that makes life worth living. Just as important as community, however, in bringing meaning and purpose to life is a sound, deeply shared love between a man and a woman.

The narrator of The Abortion had drifted through a purposeless existence until he met and fell in love with Vida, a beautiful woman who brings him back in contact with life. Love gone sour and the consequences of this on the soul are the principal concerns of both Willard and His Bowling Trophies and Sombrero Fallout. Without love, Brautigan’s books imply, life is a gray, pointless affair. Both his poetry and his prose point to healthy love and sexuality as a very important part of the good life.

Despite the strength and the consistency of themes in Brautigan’s novels, this element is seldom, if ever, the emphasis in his fiction, and his readers probably did not buy his books for their ruminations on particular ideas. Instead, Brautigan was a scintillating prose stylist whose humor ran toward a zaniness that was seldom lame or strained. Lee Mellon, despite his flaws as a human being, is entertaining and fascinating because he is at the same time likable and humorously fantastic.

In Trout Fishing in America, the narrator goes to a strange sort of retail business establishment that sells trout streams by the foot (trees and birds are optional and at extra charge). Like Lee Mellon, the Cleveland Wrecking Yard is funny and sad at the same time; the reader is encouraged to laugh and ponder the odd ways of America—how it treats everything as commodity, even as Americans (both the reader and the author) try to imbue everything with meaning. Even in Brautigan’s later books such as The Hawkline Monster, the humor of situation and character is frequently entertaining. A wry view of life animates Brautigan’s early novels, and when that disappeared, so too did the joy that readers found in his books.

Besides being humorous, the writing is richly metaphoric. When he began writing fiction, Brautigan retained both the insights and the methods of poetry. The Cleveland Wrecking Yard shows Brautigan’s use of figurative language as well as it shows his humor. This establishment represents the way America “does business,” packaging myth with environment and selling both at a profit. As in all good metaphors, the point is both clear and striking.

Often, however, Brautigan’s figurative language is harder to interpret. Every reader of In Watermelon Sugar has the impression that something besides a post-nuclear-war hippie commune is the topic under discussion, but even the critics have not been able to agree on what this extended figure of speech is intended to illuminate. Another type of figurative complexity is found in Brautigan’s frequent analogies. The “Ice Age Cab Company” chapter of The Tokyo-Montana Express finds the narrator struggling to describe how a sunset on the mountains constantly changes as it is being watched.

To help readers understand his problem, he tells the story of a woman cab driver who seems preoccupied with an entirely different kind of change in the appearance of the mountains—that brought about by successive ice ages. At the end of her monologue, the narrator says, “When she started talking about the mountains, they looked one way and when she finished talking about them, they looked another way. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say about this sunset.” On the superficial level, one learns how long it takes her to tell her tale—in terms of the sunset. On another level, one is informed about the kinds of changes that take place in the mind as one views things from different perspectives. On the poetic level, one experiences an abrasion, one kind of change (a relatively rapid one, the sunset) grinding against a very different kind (the very slow change that glaciers bring about over eons). The result of such carefully wrought poetic language, though it often seems simple on the surface, is a discourse that is lean and spare and drenched in nuance.

A Confederate General from Big Sur

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

A small band of bizarre nonconformists searches for Lee Mellon’s connection with the past and, not finding it, survives with whatever comes to hand.

A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan’s first published novel, focuses the reader’s attention on its characters. The narrator is Jesse, a young man whose gentle, strange personality has the capacity to delight the reader with metaphoric insights and uncommon attitudes toward love, friendship, and life in general. The central character of the novel, however, is Lee Mellon, a true eccentric. In the first part of the book, he tries to gather information about an ancestor, Augustus Mellon, who (at least as family history would have it) was a general in the Civil War. Jesse tries to help Lee in his quest and thus becomes enmeshed in Mellon’s chaotic, rough-hewn life. At one point, Jesse calls his friend a “Confederate General in ruins,” echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of man as a god in ruins.

Lee Mellon is something of a narcissist and a bounder, but his character is compelling because he confronts life directly and leads the kind of wild, wide-open existence that invites readers to fantasize that they, too, could be more this way if they chose. Lee comes short of being truly offensive because he brings no lasting harm to anyone else.

Despite Jesse’s and Lee’s intensive search, they find no evidence that anyone by the name of Augustus Mellon was ever a Confederate general. Throughout the work Brautigan uses analogies from the Civil War, and particularly writings about that mythic struggle, as an underlying conceit. As in Brautigan’s later novels, an underlying literary work, a repeated allusion, acts as a source and inspiration, giving both information to the account and tone to the writing style. In fact, Brautigan identifies the principal source as Ezra J. Warner’s Generals in Gray (1959).

After their failure to uncover any information about the hypothetical general, Lee and Jesse retreat to Mellon’s ramshackle place on the coast at Big Sur and ponder the possibilities of life while they have affairs with local women, help control a psychotic millionaire driven from home by his greedy family, and generally share whatever adventures and misadventures come their way. Jesse, however, is troubled by the chaos and uncertainty of life at Big Sur with Lee Mellon in charge. He is further unsettled by Lee’s increasing aggression toward others, especially the erratic millionaire Johnston Wade, who is also referred to as Roy Earle, the character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the film High Sierra. Despite all Lee Mellon’s flaws, his rebelliousness, zaniness, and originality make him compelling and appealing.

This frankly experimental work is further complicated by Brautigan’s providing not one but several endings for the book. In the first ending, the two friends and their girlfriends are high on marijuana and Jesse is unable to complete the sexual act initiated by the woman he is with. The second ending resembles a still photograph of the foursome on the beach. By the time readers reach the sixth ending, they learn that the book has more and more endings unraveling faster and faster—“186,000 endings per second,” the speed of light.

While Brautigan’s decision to provide multiple endings may adequately describe marijuana intoxication (through confusion and disorientation), it nevertheless forces readers to select their own version of how the tale ends and thus casts some of the burden of the meaning of the story on them. No matter which ending (or endings) readers select, the conclusion of the book is desolate. One is alone, though one may find oneself among friends, and the isolation is painful and lacking in hope. Intoxication, sex, or activity may numb the pain for...

(The entire section is 4190 words.)