Feb 15, 2017
A Book that Changed my Life
by Shaun Shackleton, poet, writer, musician and journalist.
A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan.
1984, I was 18, had left school and was working in Guernsey, picking kiwi fruit and celery in a greenhouse the size of two football fields, sharing the workspace with bees. So far, so Brautiganesque. But I didn't know his work then.
I'd read Kerouac like everyone else and wasn't that enamoured (On the Road, nah, but I liked Big Sur).
So this is probably why A Confederate General from Big Sur caught my eye on the Picador paperback stand in Buttons bookshop one Saturday. The cover showed a hippy bloke and a 60s lass sharing an umbrella underneath Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa.
I took it home and read it in two sittings. I'd never read anything like it before. Set in 1957, the narrator meets drifter Lee Mellon who believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general who was originally from Big Sur, California.
The short chapters (some half a page long) have headings like The Rivets in Ecclesiastes, where the narrator counts all the full stops in the bible chapter; The Tide Teeth of Lee Mellon, which traces how the novel's hero lost various sets of dentures (one was running them over with a tractor); and the final chapter, To A Pomegranate Ending, Then 186,000 Endings Per Second. Beautiful, funny and poetic - and also touching. I found out quite a while later that Brautigan had committed suicide on 16 September, 1984, which wouldn't have been long after I'd bought A Confederate General from Big Sur.
33 years later it is still on my bookshelf.