Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lee Mellon, meet Ferris Buelller

Next to Trout Fishing in America, I think A Confederate General from Big Sur is probably Brautigan's best-known book. Lee Mellon is the title character. Brautigan casts himself as Jesse, the narrator and a friend of Lee Mellon's.

I'm trying to figure out why I like Lee Mellon. He does some mean things (in one of the early chapters, he assaults and robs a stranger who is giving him a ride); he is perpetually desperate for sex (preferably with a prostitute); and he just isn't very smart sometimes (wasting their last bullet in an ill-concieved attempt at shooting a rabbit to be roasted for dinner).

The engaging side of Lee Mellon is that he is the most cockeyed of optimists, a grinning grandiose spinner of yarns and teller of lies. In one gin-soaked afternoon, he and an acquaintance build a rickety, dangerous, dirt-floored, low-ceilinged hut which barely clings to a seaside bluff in Big Sur. Mellon, inviting Jesse to join him there, describes the place as a virtual paradise. Jesse has just broken up with Cynthia and is in a funk. Mellon writes from Big Sur:

"Cheer up, smarts! You've still got old Lee Mellon and a cabin waiting for you down here at Big Sur. A good cabin. It's on a cliff high over the Pacific. It has a stove and three glass walls. You can lie in bed in the morning and watch the sea otters making it. Very educational. It's the greatest place in the world."
And, after another morose reply from Jesse:

"I've got a garden that grows all year round! A 30:30 Winchester for deer, a .22 for rabbits and quail. I've got some fishing tackle and The Journal of Albion Moonlight. We can make it OK. What do you want, a fur-lined box of Kleenex to absorb the sour of your true love Cynthia, the Ketchikan and/or Battle Mountain cookie? Come to the party and hurry down to Big Sur and don't forget to bring some whiskey. I need whiskey!"
And Mellon loves to needle his buddy Jesse in a good-natured way, which sometimes exhasperates Jesse but usually just draws a bemused grin. Near the end of the book, Mellon suggests that he and Jesse and their new girlfriends hike down to the ocean, get a little high, and watch the waves.

"I like the way [the waves] crack like eggs against the grand grill of North America. You like that, huh? You're supposed to be literary."

Mellon is also protective and solicitous of a character named Roy Earle, who pops up unexpectedly and is a mess of paranoia, hyperactvity, and hallucination. In one episode, Roy Earle starts a fire at the Big Sur encampment, whch Jesse and and Lee struggle to put out. Jesse says, "I thought Lee Mellon was going to slug him, but all Lee Mellon did was tell him to sit down and cover his eyes with his hands." Mellon and Earle are kindred spirits in a way, so Mellon just knows how to calm Roy Earle down. "He's a nut, so you just have to treat him like a nut." For the rest of that evening, Jesse addresses Lee Mellon as "Dr. Jung."

Lee Mellon is the kind of character Brautigan clearly admires. Untroubled, crazy-like-a-fox, lazy, hipster doofus. Mellon brags about reading "The Russians" but unlike many of Brautigan's contemporaries, he actually has.

Mellon was the Ferris Bueller of the 1960's. Self-absorbed, charismatic, zany, and a true friend.

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