This year of the belles-lettres detective (Berger's Villanova, Feiffer's Ackroyd) finds unpredictable Richard Brautigan at his very breeziest--inside the mind of C. Card, the worst shamus in 1942 San Francisco, bereft of clients, cash, and companionship: ""It's hard to find people to kiss when you haven't got any money in your pocket and you're as big a fuckup as I am."" Today, however, there's a prospective client to meet, if only Card can avoid his rent-seeking landlady, scrounge bullets for his gun, and resist the delicious temptation to daydream of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon (""just like a song playing on the radio in my mind""), where he stages such comic-strip adventures as Smith Smith Versus the Shadow Robots. Serendipity strikes--""Bullets for my gun! Five dollars! And best of all, a dead landlady!""--and the elegant, blonde, beer-guzzling client hires Card to steal a murdered hooker's body from the morgue; this would be dandy if she hadn't also hired some gun-toting thugs to snatch the same cadaver and some razorwielding blacks to ambush Card on his way to the 1:00 a.m. cemetery rendezvous. Neither parody nor genre re-creation, this cartwheeling fantasy is more like a sentimental comic book without the pictures--the Babylonian pipedreams and occasional Brautiganian whimsies (""As I walked along, I pretended that I had a prefrontal lobotomy"") do their tricks witout keeping C. Card from getting where he's going, which is nowhere. As a result, the deceptively simple sentences, the two-page chapters, and the surface amusements generate about the fastest 220 pages you'll ever read--leaving lots of extra time to wonder what, if anything, it all meant.