Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Dreaming of Babylon

If imitation is the best form of flattery, what does that make parody? A bit tired of reading seriously delivered, straightfaced crime fiction, I recently decided to go the parodic route and picked up a book I've been meaning to read for ages. I'm talking about Richard Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon, his novel from 1977. I read a few Brautigans years and years ago (A Confederate General at Big Sur, Trout Fishing in America, The Hawkline Monster), and had not returned to him since. He's a quintessentially 1960s to mid-1970s writer, a writer who had a lot of success early in his career but who by the end of the 1970s was out of fashion and not selling well. As his friend Thomas McGuane said, "When the 1960s ended, he was the baby thrown out with the bath water. He was a gentle, troubled, deeply odd guy." Brautigan married and divorced twice and had a daughter, but by 1981 he was living alone in Bolinas, California, in Marin County, in a large house he had bought with his earlier earnings. An alcoholic who had talked many times of committing suicide, he died by self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1984. He had published 9 novels and 10 collections of poetry.

Dreaming of Babylon was his eighth novel. It's set in 1942 and the protagonist is private investigator C. Card, operating out of San Francisco. Down and out doesn't begin to describe him; he's a level beyond that. He's a guy way behind on the rent he needs for his cheap apartment. He has no car, so he has to take mass transportation wherever he goes. He does own a gun, but he's too poor to afford bullets to load it. Besides these problems, he's an incessant dreamer, a guy who has trouble keeping his mind on the business (such as he gets it) at hand.  As he says of himself in the novel's epigraph: 

I guess one of the reasons
that I've never been
a very good private detective
is that I spend too much time
dreaming of Babylon.

At least he has self-awareness. Dreaming while awake, while engaged in work, while out on a case, is his Achilles Heel, and he does everything he can to fight his weakness. He can't always though, and he winds up dreaming of Babylon wherever he may be, whether on the bus, on the street, or on a stakeout. What is Babylon exactly? I guess you could call it a mental space, a realm inside his head where narratives of his own peculiar devising unfold. It's a place he's been going to for years, since just after high school, and his visits began just after the time when he, C. Card, a fair baseball player in high school, was hit in the head by a fastball. The ball had been thrown by a pitcher when Card was trying out for a semi-pro team. As he says he found out that day, "It was really beautiful in Babylon. I went for a walk beside the Euphrates River. There was a girl with me. She was very beautiful and wearing a gown that I could see through. She had on an emerald necklace.
We talked about President Roosevelt. She was a Democrat, too. The fact that she had large firm breasts and was a Democrat made her the perfect woman for me."

A not unusual male type circa 1942, except this particular male lives all his romances in his mind. And he has to get out of his mind to solve the case he manages to get hired for. He has to borrow bullets for his gun from a cop friend of his named Sergeant Rink, and his investigations take him to the San Francisco morgue, whose main attendant he is friendly with and who has trouble keeping track of the bodies coming and going from the place. The morgue, in fact, becomes a central location for much of Dreaming of Babylon's action, and things go from absurd to doubly absurd as dead bodies get mixed up and Card feels the weight of having to interrupt his work in order to make his regular weekly call to his mother, who is, shall we say, less balanced than he is. It's a novel that has all the earmarks of Brautigan: whimsy, dark humor, suprising imagery, terse but poetic prose. It has the distinct Brautigan feeling of narrative freedom and unpredictability. It's a lark, in other words, albeit one with a tinge of yearning and melancholy, and with this book, Brautigan does for the PI novel what he does for the Western and the Gothic novel in The Hawkline Monster. He pokes fun at a form and its all too often predictable patterns, though he does not do it vicously. I found it a pleasurable and amusing read, just the playful thing I was looking for, an escape from the usual PI tropes that can become at times, let's face it, a little wearying.

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