Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674
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 a while, but eventually each individual must face whatever hollowness exists within his or her soul. The contrast between the pervasive humor and the desolation of the ending (that desolation is also found elsewhere in the book) gives the novel a tense, haunting quality. The contrast oddly blends the angst that is often found in the Beats and the joyous, carefree attitude that characterized the American youth movement of the 1960’s.