In a country a lot like our own, in a time a little bit like now, Bibi Brown is an ordinary young man with an extraordinary destiny. Bibi, the first male in twelve generations of Browns not to have taken his own life, has a furious crush on a beautiful nine-fingered woman and an unbearable urge to understand the meaning of Time, the Universe, and America. So Bibi begins his quest--careening through a world of bizarre cults, gravity-defying crones, and lunatics of every stripe--all for a chance to meet his long-lost uncle Otto, a legendary junk-dealer who lives on the Hope Valley Hubcap Ranch. Because in a world that is spinning a little too fast, and a little too wildly, Bibi’s destiny is to find the essence of hope, the beauty of hubcaps, and the meaning of life in the Valley of the Hubcap King....
With a touch of Candide, a dash of Don Quixote, and healthy dose of Zen, Sean Murphy’s wondrous, riotous novel is the story of an ordinary man searching through a hilariously off-kilter world--for the truths that might just save us all.
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TINY BLUE MOONS
He was no more than a child when the unreality of the world began to impress itself on him. His earliest memories were of moments when perspective went out of kilter, and foreground and background shifted without warning. Once, during a picnic at the waterfront, his mother bent forward to pass a plate of quartered dill pickles, and the river behind her appeared to freeze in place, while its banks drifted upstream. Another time, as he ambled along a city sidewalk holding his father's hand, the cars seemed to glide to a halt, while the buildings coasted along behind as though on an unseen conveyor belt.
On one occasion he spent an entire afternoon staring into his reflection in a neighbor's fish pond. "My face, Daddy," he cried, as his parents finally led him away, "I could stick my hand through it. I could drink it!"
He'd wriggled about so much in the womb his mother finally complained to her obstetrician: "Doc, can't you give him tranquilizers or something? My insides feel like a jungle gym!"
Once he learned to crawl he roamed the house ceaselessly, up and down stairs, in and out of closets, cabinets, the basement. A moment's inattention by his mother and he was gone; following a panicked search, she'd find him in the cellar, staring at a spider building its web, or a scrap of insulation that had come loose from the pipes and drifted to and fro with every draft. After he began to walk he struck off for wider territory. Out a window, through a door left ajar; once his father found him teetering at the edge of a bluff overlooking the river, face jutting into the wind like the figurehead on the prow of a ship.
A family friend remarked that the child had all the quickness and agility of a greyhound. The resemblance did not stop at that; for he was long and lean-limbed, with streamlined, forward-pointing features, and the way the hair swept back from his brow gave the impression of constant motion.
"And those eyes," the friend cooed. "So blue and round, like little moons. Tiny blue moons, I do declare!"
He'd been christened Frederick G. Brown II, but from the time of his birth he was known, for no reason anyone could ever ascertain, as Bibi.
"Pronounced BB," his mother explained to doctors, teachers, and anyone else who balked on seeing the name in print. "You know, like the gun."
One morning in his fifth year, Bibi was skating in his socks across the kitchen floor when he collided with a kettle of scalding water his mother was taking off the stove--an event that caused his already wide eyes to open wider than ever and which, his mother later claimed, caused their blue color to deepen permanently by several degrees. The child was left with a nasty burn on the back of his left wrist; and in the next days he did little but stare at it. It was as though by peering into his wound Bibi was seeing, for the first time, into himself. He gazed for hours into that translucent pink expanse, imagining the intricate workings of blood cells and capillaries, and wondering in his childish way: Is this all I am?
"Bibi," his mother told him, "go out and play! It's not normal to sit around all day staring at that thing!"
But her words had no effect. The burn eventually healed, leaving him with a mark shaped roughly like the continent of Australia, and the child resumed his wandering ways--but for years after, whenever he was worried or unable to sleep, Bibi's parents would find him sitting in the corner of his bedroom, staring into the roughened, puckered surface of his scar, and rubbing his fingers across it again and again.
Bibi's dawning perception of the world's unreality was accompanied by a deepening sense of the strangeness of time. The Fourth Depression had reached its lowest ebb by the time he entered school, and whenever he and his mother drove into town they'd pass crowds of jobless men in front of liquor stores and movie marquees, beneath billboards announcing:
BELIEVE IN AMERICA
"Mom," Bibi asked on one such visit, "what are those men doing?"
"Just killing time, I suppose," his mother shrugged, smiling at her son's curiosity.
Bibi said no more, but her words stuck with him. What a notion! All those people standing around, killing time--yet time never seemed to die. Bibi spent hours afterward imagining what the world might look like following the death of time: but the closest he could come was a chaotic mishmash where everything happened at once, like a dream in which the details always eluded him.
Then there was the uncertain nature of love. Love was something Bibi often felt coming from other people toward him--when his mother, for instance, brushed her way through his dark, tousled mat of hair in the morning, kissed him on that prominent forehead, and sent him off to school saying: "Make Momma proud!" But he was never entirely sure he could feel anything going in the opposite direction. To find out, he undertook a series of experiments. Bibi reasoned that the best way to figure out whether you loved someone was to see how you'd feel if something awful happened to them. With this in mind, he began a program of visualizations in which he imagined his parents in all manner of horrifying circumstances: tumbling from precipices, flattened by steamrollers, sinking in storm-tossed seas--all the while examining his own responses for any glimmer of regret. The results were inconclusive. He was unable to stimulate a single feeling he could confidently label "love." Bibi liked many people--in fact, nearly everyone he met--but of love he was never certain.
Thus Bibi wasn't sure what he felt when, on an otherwise ordinary day in his eleventh year, his father killed himself. The event, to be sure, was hardly unexpected; Bibi's father was the twelfth firstborn son in the last dozen generations of Browns to take his own life.
Bibi's grandfather, Harrison Humbert Brown, a noted university professor and scholar, had hung himself from a crossbeam in his garage nine years earlier, leaving a note that read: "Life was better before I knew so much."
Bibi's great-grandfather, Nate "West" Brown, a social reformer and labor organizer, had leapt from the Sears Tower during the Third Depression, leaving the message: "The future is bright, but I never seem to get there."
And Bibi's great-great-grandfather, G. Larson Brown, a well-known scientist and inventor, exited the world via a deliberate laboratory explosion, leaving the comment: "Life was the death of me."
The eight remaining generations of deceased Browns will be arranged in list form to simplify presentation:
Vladimir Estragon Brown, hobo and philosopher. Intentional self-starvation:
"God stood me up."
Willy "The Zip" Brown, Dadaist and performance artist. Had himself cast in a seven by nine foot block of Lucite on a nationwide TV show:
"Life is a Naugahyde seat cover with no stuffing."
Quentin Sartoris Brown, physician and researcher. Intravenous self-injection of curare:
"At last I've found the cure for all life's ills."
Chandler Phillips Brown, private detective. Willful ingestion of seventy-three .45-caliber bullets:
"I haven't got a clue."
Ernest "Rhinoceros" Brown, big-game hunter and explorer. Ritual self-disembowelment by buffalo horn: "When all is said and done, I'm just like everybody else."
Gregor Samson Brown, failed writer and bodybuilder. Overdose of DDT. Left behind seven unfinished novels, the theme of which might best be summarized as: "Why bother?"
Andrew Philifor Brown, ruined gold miner. Drowned self in Placer River after the great rush:
Ulysses Bloom Brown, land baron. Drove horse and carriage off West River Bridge:
"I'm just plain bored."
"Twelve generations of Browns," wept Bibi's mother after his father's funeral, dabbing at her face with a mascara-streaked handkerchief. "Gone, all gone."
"Thirteen," Bibi corrected, holding one hand in the other and scratching along the edges of his scar.
"Well, yes," his mother responded. "There is you." And she broke out crying all over again.
Bibi's father, an amateur table tennis champion, had ended his life via the unconventional means of inhaling a Ping-Pong ball, which had lodged just above his epiglottis, asphyxiating him. Bibi and his dog Buster found the body when they scrambled beneath a rosebush in the garden to retrieve a lost toy. The victim's eyes were open and bulging, as though in surprise that his method had produced the desired effect. Although his father was the first dead person Bibi had seen, he was not to be the last; and the image of those permanently startled features would trouble his dreams for years to come.
The note left by Frederick G. Brown senior read simply: "Is this all I am?" Ironically, it was the same question his son had been asking himself not long ago, one that would continue to haunt him for much of the rest of his life.
As Bibi grew older he took to roaming the city by bus, and asking questions of those he met. He once, for instance, asked a woman on the Thirty-nine Northbound about the nature of gravity.
"Er . . ." she replied, peering at him over a pair of teardrop-shaped bifocals, "it's a form of suction, I suppose. Like that chewing gum on the floor over there. Just think of gravity as a wad of gum dropped by God that we've all stepped in--and now we're stuck!"
Another time Bibi asked a man on a park bench about death. "Death?" the man responded, pushing greying hair back from his face and tossing crumbs to the gaggle of pigeons at his feet. "Why, people are dying all the time. Here we are talking, and they're out there switching off like lights. Going down like ships. One for every word we say, one for every syllable. Poof! Just like that. If you ask me, death's become a habit, like smoking--one we're not likely to give up, even though it can't be good for us." He laughed, then scattered the birds with a wave of his hand. "Poof," he cried, as they flapped off. "Away with you!"
As Bibi entered adolescence, his obsessive tendencies deepened with the discovery of a new and irresistible subject matter: the feminine sex. Every day on his way to school Bibi passed beneath a billboard for Protectobane automobile finish, in which a smiling, bikini-clad model leaned against a red sports car, grasping a cylindrical, round-tipped Protectobane bottle with what seemed to Bibi an unusual degree of delight. It was twilight in the picture, and a full moon rose over a cluster of palm trees in the background. The message read:
The moon may wax, the moon may wane,
But you don't have to wax with Protectobane!
Bibi had passed beneath the sign every school day of his life, but as he grew older the image took on new meaning. It wasn't as though he had no other pictures of women to look at: there were magazines the boys passed around at school, movies and television, and plenty of other billboards. But there was something special about this one, though at first he couldn't say what it was. He stood for hours below it, enraptured; his schoolmates taunted him, and he was often late for class. Then one day Bibi discovered the source of his fascination. He was passing by with a neighbor boy when he stopped in mid-stride.
"Aw, Bibi," whined his companion. "You're not gonna stand there and stare at that thing again, are ya? You'll make us late."
His friend finally went on without him. What Bibi had noticed was a small thing: a detail the photographer had overlooked, or found too insignificant to retouch out of the picture. Both of the woman's hands were clasped around the Protectobane bottle, which was held just below the level of her navel--in a rather unnatural position, if Bibi thought about it. Her fingers were only partly visible, as her hands had been placed toward the rear of the bottle so the label might be more fully exposed. But when Bibi looked carefully at the second finger from the bottom, the ring finger of her left hand, he could just barely make out that part of it was missing. All the others were complete, but through some mishap or accident of birth this particular digit ended between the second and third knuckle, leaving a small but discernible stub.
And there was something about this partial finger that moved Bibi deeply, more deeply than anything had moved him before, moved him all the way through his flesh and into his bones and through his bones and into the marrow and through his marrow to whatever lay on the other side. It was a compassion for what he imagined she'd suffered, but also an excitement over her hidden difference, a difference he alone could recognize. His insides quivered so he could scarcely breathe and he felt as though he were attached to something from within, something he couldn't see but which tugged and pulled unceasingly now from some buried center of his being. He didn't understand it, and he certainly couldn't have explained it; but he suddenly felt as though he'd found something for which he'd been searching a very long time.
What bliss his fantasies of the Nine-fingered Woman brought to Bibi's solitary nighttime recreations! Her ivory skin, the golden tresses spilling across her shoulders, those long, perfect fingers--fingers with a space between them, like parentheses, just waiting to be filled by his boundless, overflowing love. Her caresses! Those perfect, partial caresses, all the more complete for the space inside them. And when, in the love nest of his mind, he gave her his own private Protectobane bottle to hold, what indescribable ecstasy!
In the newly sunlit world of his fancy, Bibi spun anguished, heroic tales in which his beloved found herself in precarious positions where he alone might be of assistance. An interview, for example, at a modeling agency:
"I'm sorry, ma'am, you are without a doubt the most beautiful woman I've ever met, but with that missing finger--" The interviewer, a big-city type with suit and cigar, leans back in his chair.
"Please, sir, I've been to every agency in the city. I wouldn't ask just for myself, but my mother is sick and I--" The Nine-fingered Woman's sea-green eyes well up with emotion.
"I'd like to help you, ma'am, I really would, but--"
"Hold on just a minute!" shouts Bibi, who happens to be waiting in the next room for an appointment on some unrelated matter. He shoulders his way through the door to face his darling's tormentor. "Are you looking for just another pretty face, or someone who is truly unique?"
"Do you mean to tell me you're going to turn away the most beautiful woman in the country because of a single trivial defect?"