A Confederate General from Big Sur Summary
The very title of Richard Brautigan’s novel emphasizes the unusual conjunction of events, characters, and places that distinguishes much of his fiction from conventional treatments of history and society. His characters are drawn to powerful figures, such as Lee Mellon, who define their own reality; fantasy, in other words, is related as fact—primarily because, in Brautigan’s view, human beings make up their lives as they go along, regardless of what the history books and common sense seem to prescribe. The results of this flaunting of realism are usually comic and ironic and in the service of the novelist’s perception that reality is not nearly so stable or so reliable as serious recorders of fact would have it.
Lee Mellon, for example, claims to be from the South, although he has no trace of a Southern accent. His great-grandfather was a Confederate general, he tells the narrator, Jesse, although on their trip to the library they find no General Augustus Mellon in the history books. Jesse, who admires Lee and takes on his propensity for rewriting history, begins the book by stating that Big Sur was the twelfth Confederate state. Both characters engender a sense of history that is true to their own situation—that is, as outcasts from the dominant culture, they have picked a time and a place that suits their identities; they have seceded, so to speak, from the mainstream and fashioned a counterculture.
As befits an unconventional novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur has no plot; rather, it follows a series of related adventures in which Lee and Jesse drop out of society. At first, however, Lee Mellon is a character (noteworthy for the great number of teeth he has lost) whom Jesse admires from afar as “a Confederate General in ruins.” Lee has no army, but he does carry on a kind of assault against the status quo by illegally tunneling into and tapping the main gas line of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and by taking up with Susan, the daughter of the “Freezer King of Sepulveda Boulevard.”
Lee Mellon’s battle with society, however, does not amount to much, and he retreats to Big Sur, building his own cabin like a latter-day Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). He is hardly a self-sufficient model, even if he does manage to live without electricity. The five-foot-one-inch ceiling of his cabin, for example, is a poor affair and reflective of his impracticality. Yet this is his charm, and he succeeds in luring Jesse to Big Sur after the latter has lost Cynthia, the woman who has kept him in San Francisco.
Much of the rest of the novel details their meager existence at Big Sur. The men are short of food, and Jesse is troubled by a melancholia relieved on occasion by Lee’s energetic imagination and resourcefulness and by the appearance of two women, Elizabeth and Elaine, who (along with “Roy Earle”) create a weird, momentary utopia out of a culture of scarcity.
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...
(The entire section is 1,176 words.)