The Tower of Babel, Jack Spicer, $12.95.
Jack Spicer began and abandoned his "detective novel," which
editors Kevin Killian and Lew Ellingham have titled The Tower of Babel,
in 1958. Even in its fragmentary state—the murder about which one
assumes the plot would come to revolve only occurs in its last four pages—this
is a fascinating and assured document. Spicer, like Eliot, Pound,
and Auden, was an assiduous reader of detective novels (though his tastes
ran to far more hard-boiled fare than the fastidious Eliot would have cared
for), and The Tower of Babel shows that he had studied Hammet and Chandler
to good effect. It's no surprise that Spicer writes a lucid and graceful
prose, nor that the author of After Lorca has an almost preternatural grasp
of dialogue. What is surprising is how straightforward and readable
this novel is, with none of the stylistic tics that make so much mystery
literature—from Chandler on—alternately amusing and irritating.
The Tower of Babel is also a literary satire, doing for
the avant-garde poetry scene of fifties San Francisco what Kingsley Amis
or David Lodge do for the academy. The poet John Ralston has returned
west from Boston—where he has become, much to his dismay, an establishment
poet—to check out the much-vaunted "San Francisco Renaissance," and there
are parodies here of the Beat scene, the late fifties intersection of poetry
and jazz, and the Black Mountain phenomenon. Regrettably, the book
doesn't do much to cast light on Spicer's own incomparable poetics, though
there is a strong implicit contrast made between his own "practice of outside"
and Ralston's joyous production of a poem that is "one of his poems."