This oddball comedy of a novel, written by Richard Brautigan, centers around Jesse's interactions with the very eccentric vagabond known as Lee Mellon, reputed to be related to the obscure American Civil War general Augustus Mellon.
There be drugs, gallons of booze, enticing women of many flavors, and a pretty accurate cultural snapshot of San Francisco, Oakland and the central California Coast near Big Sur that still applies in some respects today. There's even alligators, frogsnote , Winchester rifles and singed eyebrows.
It's frank, visceral, and at times incredibly explicit. Moral ambiguity is rife throughout the book, which makes the characters fun and unpredictable.
Throughout the book, the "Historical Accounts" of Private Augustus Mellon are sprinkled liberally, differentiated by italicized text. They have an entertaining parallel to the life of Lee Mellon. Reviewers praise Brautigan's authorship in these passages and say he provides a vividly accurate portrait of the Battle of the Wilderness.
Published in 1964, it was apparently a "must read" for the beat generation, and Brautigan's unorthodox writing style treads the line between over-the-top bizarre to unexpectedly beautiful. It's rife with metaphors and filled with hilarious observations. Amusingly, the Times said of the novel "Oh, it flows!"
- Abandoned Playground: Lee's friend Elizabeth lives in a rustic cabin with her children, but when Lee and Jesse visit nobody's home. Jesse is slightly unnerved by the abandoned playthings in the yard including a game the children had made with dirt, abalone shells and deer antlers: "Perhaps it wasn't a game at all, only the grave of a game." (Elizabeth's all right, though; she turns up later in the story, and presumably the kids are fine.)
- The Alleged Car: Lee Mellon's pickup truck as described in the book: "If there were pickup trucks made for the Civil War, this would be it." Doesn't have a gas tank and required someone in the bed at all times to siphon gasoline from a drum into the fuel line.
- All Just a Dream: Thankfully averted as everything takes place when Jesse is conscious (or not).
- All Gays Are Promiscuous/Depraved Homosexual: Sadly reinforced, but it is set in 1957.
- The American Civil War: Plays a prominent leitmotif in this book, and ties the 19th century conflict with all the antics occurring in their modern lives. Lots of imagery of all types creatively woven in, sights, sounds, smells and tastes.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Roy Earle is definitely this, in spades. Although he has a (very) brief lapse from his insanity, this former insurance salesman is prone to impulsiveness and paranoia in addition to his absolute detachment from this plane of reality. He's eventually chained to a log by Lee in an attempt to keep him from the rest of the group. Like a Broken Record, he blurts out "I'm the head cheese at the Johnston Wade Insurance Company, of San Jose, California!" Also, after spending an entire afternoon sitting next to the pond, he gets up in absolute horror after realizing that the creatures in the pond were alligators, even after being told so.
- Ethical Slut: Elizabeth. A Korean War widow, she has a rustic home where she cuts her own firewood, weaves her own cloth and raises vegetables, chickens (for their eggs... she's a vegetarian who "cannot stand to kill a living thing", including rattlesnakes) and four beautiful children, but earns huge amounts of money by transforming herself into a high class call girl specializing in "weird action", two or three times a year. Presumably she invests it.
- The '50s: Averted. Also barely recognizable as such, but it is San Francisco we're talking about.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed and Write Who You Know: Lee Mellon is a recognizable portrait of Richard's longtime friend Price Dunn, naturally with a few things exaggerated here and there. Price thought the book was marvelous. The idea that Lee's grandfather was a Confederate general started as a family joke about Price's great-uncle John.
- Noble Confederate Soldier: Augustus Mellon, in the flashbacks.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Among many other things, the four-hundred-dollar motorcycle, Richard counting the punctuation marks in Ecclesiastes, the tiny but deafening frogs and even the baby alligators brought to eat them all came from Richard and Price's real experiences living in a lodge at Big Sur. Roy Earle was real, too.
- Southern-Fried Genius: Lee Mellon, despite all his bizarre antics is very quick on his feet, a grand schemer and an excellent improvisational master.
- Unreliable Narrator: Jesse is surprisingly accurate as a narrator, but when he gets high the details get sketchy.