Dreaming of Babylon: Thinking about Brautigan
by Gus Edwards
I’ve just finished reading Richard Brautigan’s Dreaming of Babylon (A Private Eye novel 1942) and I think it’s a doozy. It’s Brautigan which means that it’s kooky, absurd, insane, hilariously funny and completely fractured even in the way the novel is constructed. Now those should be reasons enough to recommend it, but in addition to all those virtues I have to add another. And that is respect. Because in spite of its absurdities the novel adheres to the traditions of the genre with a respectful degree of intelligence and affection.
The story is told in the first person by the Private Eye of the subtitle a Mr. C. Card who might just be the worst PI in the business. Of course just as he’s feeling completely down and out, along comes a job. He is hired by this beautiful blonde with a seemingly bottomless capacity for beer. She is accompanied by a murderous looking bodyguard/driver referred to as “The Neck”. The job is to steal a body from the San Francisco City morgue and deliver it to them at midnight in an appointed graveyard. Card takes the job because he’s been down so long that a job, any job, looks like up to him. He owes his landlady six months back rent, his mother eight hundred dollars and because he has no car so he has to take public transportation to get him from one place to another. He can’t afford cabs. That’s how bad things are.
But our Mr. Card is no ordinary down-and- out Private Eye. He is a man who exists fully on an alternative mental plain. A city not unlike San Francisco where he is a tough guy detective in the Dashiell Hammett’/Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler/ Phillip Marlowe tradition. Where like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, who came along later, he has a sexy, knockout secretary who’s crazy for him. So where everything’s wrong for him in San Francisco, everything’s right for him in Babylon. And much of the novel’s narrative is addressed to him balancing these two plains of existence.
Now as we go through the story we come across a plethora of curious characters. His mother, his landlady, a peg-legged manager of the city morgue, a tough cop (Sgt. Rink)that no criminal should ever want to encounter and a couple of Femme Fatales that neither Bogie or Dick Powell ever had to deal with. Then there are some thugs who seem to come right out of Laurel and Hardy or a Mack Sennett movie.
This is the 5th or 6th Brautigan novel I’ve read and I’ve loved them all. He makes me laugh with his unexpected turns of phrases and lines of dialogue. I can’t think of too many writers I can say that about. And whenever I’m reading one of his novels I always find myself asking; “Why hasn’t somebody made a film out of this?” But when I think about it some more I realize that most of the humor and the originality in his work is in both his idiosyncratic use of language and the attitude he brings to the enterprise. Both would be difficult if not impossible to translate onto film. Brautigan, in his novels and short stories too, often incorporates a kind of American “magic realism” that critics don’t always credit him for and appreciate. But it’s there in books like The Hawkline Monster, Sombrero Fallout and others. It is here in Dreaming of Babylon too. And he makes it work in a way that defies all expectation.
He may be gone but the books are here to be read and re-read, to treasure and to laugh about. Richard Brautigan was a one-of-a-kind talent. And it’ll be a millennium before the likes of him appears on the literary horizon again. Check him out if you haven’t already. He’s a pip.