A Confederate General from Big Sur

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Richard Brautigan

A Confederate General at Big Sur was Richard Brautigan’s first published novel in 1964. It was, however, written after Trout Fishing in America, perhaps his most famous book, and made it into print first because his publishers felt it was more conventional. Not ideal, then, for a year of reading unconventional novels, but as I already had a copy (in a bargain three-for-one edition with two later novels) and it is only conventional in comparison with his own work, here we go…

The novel is split into two parts, though this suggests a sense of planning that is not otherwise evident. The first part details the narrator, Jesse’s, first meeting with Lee Mellon, who believes that his great grandfather was a Confederate general, though no written evidence can be discovered. They move into the same building and Lee begins sleeping with a girl called Susan (“The room smelled like Cupid’s gym”) who unfortunately is only sixteen and is soon collected by her father, though not before Lee manages to impregnate her. She returns to look for him but by this point Lee has moved to Big Sur. In part two, after an exchange of letters, Jesse joins Lee and they live an isolated and poverty-stricken life, tormented by a chorus of frogs:

“It was silent because a small amount of the day was still with us, but in a few hours the pond would be changed into the Inquisition. Auto-da-fe at Big Sur. Frogs wearing the robes, carrying the black candles – CROAK! CROAK! CROAK! CROAK!”

A few visitors enliven things: two young boys who attempt to steal gas from their truck; Roy Earle, a friend of Lee’s with $100,000 in his briefcase; and Elaine, who quickly pairs up with Jesse and moves in with them. They acquire a couple of alligators to rid themselves of the frogs. At the end they get high and lie on the beach – perhaps unsure how to conclude things, Brautigan offers us 186,000 endings per second, specifying five of them.

What makes Brautigan worth reading, however, is not the plot but the outlandish (though somehow apt) images he conjures up. My personal favourite on this occasion has to be his description of the cinema:

“From time to time I would get the desire to confuse my senses by watching large flat people crawl back and forth across a huge pieces of light, like worms in the intestinal track of a tornado.”

These bursts of imagination are not unrelated to the novel’s theme which seems to be about the power of imagination to impose itself on reality. This begins with Lee’s claims for his great grandfather:

“’Promise me to your dying day, you’ll believe that a Mellon was a Confederate general. It’s the truth! That God-damn book lies! There was a Confederate general in my family!’
‘I promise,’ I said and it was a promise that I kept.”

Later, when Susan returns, pregnant, looking for Lee, and the narrator lies about not having seen him, a lie that grows a life of its own:

“Once I was standing on a street corner talking to Lee Mellon and she came up to me. ‘Have you seen Lee Mellon?’ she lied with a big smile on her face.
‘No,’ I could say truthfully now.”

(Susan herself finds happiness through the power of her imagination: “She decided that she was a painter and being intelligent she realised that it was much easier to talk about painting than to actually paint.”)

Jesse and Elaine’s relationship is based on the attraction they feel towards each other rather than what they know about each other, as shown through their playful answers to any personal questions. Brautigan is very convincing on that attraction, from the romantic:

“Her lips were parted and I ran my fingers gently along her teeth and touched the sleeping tip of her tongue. I felt like a musician touching a darkened piano.”

to the more straightforward:

“She didn’t have any clothes on and the sight of her butt renewed my faith in evolution.”

The happiness they find together is in keeping with the novel’s generally upbeat tone. This is not a great novel but, a bit like Lee Mellon, it has a quirky charm that is difficult to resist.

Danger rating: a little like smoking dope – moments of apparent profundity don’t really lead anywhere, but it may become addictive.

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