Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat by David Markson

David Markson is a national treasure. He is championed by many, including young turks like David Foster Wallace. It is often said he is a writer’s writer. The implication is that he might be the one of the best unread writers in America, even though early in his career one of his books was made into a big Hollywood movie (Dingus Magee) and Ann Beattie said of him, “Markson is as precise and dazzling as Joyce.”

But, even before that, David Markson, to pay the rent, wrote a few “entertainments” — the term borrowed from Graham Greene, who labeled his own espionage potboilers such. Markson’s detective novels, though, have more in common with Raymond Chandler than they do Greene. Markson’s private dick, Harry Fannin, is a tough guy with a wiseacre mouth and a manly deportment. He’s a Hemingway character in a James Cain world, a James Cain world by way of Jack Kerouac. The New York City Fannin prowls is the Greenwich Village Bohemian crowd of the late 1950s when the names Ginsberg and Corso were passwords.

By evidence of these novels, now lovingly repackaged by Markson’s publisher Shoemaker and Hoard, with a beautiful pulp cover, Markson could have become one of our best genre writers. He has Chandler’s wit and Hammett’s sharp-edged prose. And Fannin is a character one would like to keep up with; hell, I’d follow him anywhere. It seems by the end of Epitaph for a Dead Beat that one is just getting to know him, in all his world-weary, rumpled glory. But, if Markson had stuck with his detective stories we might never have had Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel I am convinced can change your life. Or Reader’s Block, This is not a Novel, and Vanishing Point, his novels with the novel left out (called discontinuous, non-linear, and collage-like, and labeled ‘seminonfictional semifiction’), books written in a manner that is pure Markson. Or Springer’s Progress, perhaps his most accessible novel and one of his most delightful, especially for fans of The Ginger Man and Elliot Baker’s A Fine Madness.

New readers discovering Markson for the first time fall into him, relishing the sense of discovery, as they once did John Barth or Thomas Pynchon or even the Beats, who are lampooned with delicious glee in the Fannin novels. In a just universe David Markson would be as celebrated as Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller.

Shoemaker and Hoard are to be thanked for republishing these early Marksons. Apparently, there is one final “entertainment” left unpublished, Miss Doll, Go Home. One can only hope it will follow soon as second-hand copies of it are rare as blue roses and fetch hefty prices in the antiquarian trade.

These two Fannin novels are written in Fannin’s jaded, opinionated, and acid-tongued voice. We learn Fannin’s heroes are John Garfield, Fred Allen, and Stan Musial, among many others. Actually, he’s a bit of a baseball fanatic, as is his progenitor, and he seems to know batting line-ups like most of us know our locker combinations. He also dabbles in highbrow, dropping names like T.S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Karen Horney, and Lolita: “a sad story about a 12-year-old girl who couldn’t find anyone her own age to play with.” His adventures take place among readers, murderous readers — and books are sprinkled throughout the stories, especially Epitaph for a Dead Beat, where a book figures in the mystery itself. Fannin seems to notice every title. At a bar: “I told him Old Crow and he had to move a paperback called The Way Some People Die to get at the bottle.” Can we assume Markson is a Ross MacDonald fan? MacDonald, who hasn’t gotten his due, it might be said, is the bridge between Chandler and Harry Fannin.

In the first novel Harry sets out to solve the murder of his own nymphomaniacal ex-wife, who pitches face first into his office, bleeding from a knife wound in her chest. This takes Fannin into the company of some pretty seedy characters and lays open his wife’s sordid life, an education that weighs on Fannin, like a coat of dross. Apparently she fell in among thieves and ended up robbing the robbers. Along the way to solving her murder, naturally, Fannin beds some beautiful women. It just comes with the territory.

In Epitaph for a Dead Beat — the title is a nice pulpy pun — Harry is cast among the aforementioned beatniks. It’s all he can do to contain his distaste for their dissolute lifestyle. It’s all he can do to contain his critique of their sloppy poetry and stream-of-consciousness novels. And Markson is up for penning parodies of beat writing at its most precious, and for inventing a beatnik argot that is both hilarious and musical. “Probably it’s idle scratch. Just dust on the needle, you dig me?” And: “I was trying to write a blank verse epic on Sacco and Vanzetti and I was practically starving.” And: “Have I like served up something with a bone in it, dads?” Markson’s dialogue pops and sizzles, his characters often defined by their speech.

As one might imagine from an author whose experimental fictions abound with dazzling wordplay Harry Fannin tosses off quotable lines like a gumshoe Bartlett. He says, “Then he let out his breath with all the weary resignation of a plumber finding a coat hanger in a drain.” Or how about these sparkling similes: “As cheerful as a leg in traction”, “as inviting as a second-hand toothbrush”, “as bleak as picked bones”, “as dismal as the floor of the sea.” Or this bit of business, which can stand for all of Fannin’s truck among the bohos: “Then without any other sign he threw himself against the balustrade and began to sob like a baby. That moved me. Two hundred pounds of blubbering Beatnik. He’d probably gone home and found a rejected manuscript in the mailbox.”

In these novels, as in the best of Chandler and Hammett, it is not the solving of the crime that keeps the reader reading. It’s not the destination, the surprise ending. It’s getting there, and, in Markson’s witty, assured style, sharp as a pistol-shot, the trip is, well, a trip.

These genre works by one of our finest writers are great fun. Markson could have written down to a perceived lesser audience, could have gone slumming as we say. Instead, he utilized the formula admirably, adding his own sweet fillips, and produced two eccentric, fast-paced pieces of detective fiction. Markson could have begun and ended a fine career in detective fiction. That he didn’t and went on to write Wittgenstein’s Mistress is something to marvel over and be thankful for. Pick up this double-shot of Harry Fannin and savor the poppy rhythms and hard-boiled attitude, not to mention the fine evocation and re-creation of bohemian New York. Harry Fannin lives!

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