EPITAPH FOR A TRAMP & EPITAPH FOR A DEAD BEAT, by David Markson. Shoemaker & Hoard, Emeryville, CA. 377 pages, paper, $14.
Reading David Markson's two Harry Fannin detective novels -- originally published in 1959 and 1961 and out of print until Shoemaker & Hoard reissued them in a single volume earlier this month -- one is again forced to consider the age-old question: What is art?
The cover blurb on this new edition tells us that "before achieving critical acclaim as a serious author, David Markson paid the rent by writing several crime novels." This would suggest the novels "Epitaph for a Dead Beat" and "Epitaph for a Tramp" are not serious works. Markson himself has said as much, calling them "entertainments" rather than "novels" in his various bibliographies. But is there anything more serious than paying the rent?
In any event, the old cover blurbs were better.
"She couldn't say no -- not even to murder," one says. "She was out for kicks at a Greenwich Village tea party -- so was her killer," announces another. Combined with the lurid cover art and the titles themselves, the old blurbs provide pretty much everything you need to know about what's inside.
But questions about judging a book by its cover aside, when is an author serious and when is he not? Is he any better when he's serious? And who decides, anyway? Writers as gifted and diverse as Jim Thompson, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Budd Schulberg, Ray Bradbury and Zane Grey published much if not all their work in pulp magazines and paperback originals, yet still enjoy more or less considerable literary reputations today. And that's not even taking into account the great newspaper columnists, from H.L. Mencken to Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin, whose best stuff stands up as well today as it did when it was first published.
Norman Mailer wrote "The Naked and the Dead," widely considered to be among the greatest war novels of all time and a stunning literary achievement, but he also wrote the potboiler "Tough Guys Don't Dance," arguably a better book. And Ernest Hemingway's inadvertent invention of what Tom Wolfe would later come to call the "New Journalism" and claim as his own resulted in "The Green Hills of Africa" and "The Dangerous Summer," books of reportage superior in every way to the tired and hackneyed "The Old Man and the Sea," for which Papa won his Nobel Prize.
Hell, William Burroughs once spent a couple of years strung out on heroin and scribbling down his paranoid delusions before cutting the pages all up with scissors, gluing them back together in no particular order and calling it "Naked Lunch." The book has sold millions of copies, is definitely considered art, and the controversy surrounding it led to the novel's enshrinement as one of the landmark publications in the history of American letters.
So what is art? Following his early foray into pulp fiction, Markson produced three rather conventional literary novels, one of which was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra. He then began work on his masterpiece, "Wittgenstein's Mistress," published -- after 54 rejections -- to critical acclaim and fairly respectable sales in 1988. The novel contains but one character and the slimmest of plot lines but represents, as David Foster Wallace has quite correctly pointed out, "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country." Markson soon found himself compared favorably by Kurt Vonnegut and others to Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.
The four novels Markson has written since continue in the reductive mode begun in WM, eliminating plot and character almost entirely. One is even titled "This Is Not a Novel." Conventional they're not.
Which brings us full circle and back to his Harry Fannin private-eye novels. I'd already read "Epitaph for a Dead Beat," having picked up an original copy a few years back on Amazon. Markson asked how much I'd paid for it, and the inscription he penned was a reflection on the deadly sin of profligate spending.
The novel has gained something of a cult following among fans of the beatnik authors of the 1950s, whose swinging scene provides the backdrop for Fannin's violent and sometimes sadistic approach to crime-fighting.
"I'll take a clean-cut homicidal maniac any day next to a bearded bard in a dirty sweatshirt or a doped-up dame who'll wriggle out of her leotard at the drop of a beret," Fannin tells us.
The King of the Beats himself, Jack Kerouac, was crashing on the couch at Markson's Greenwich Village apartment as the book was being written, occasionally making himself useful by pumping up some of the dialogue even further, adding to the book's "authenticity."
Anyway, going into this new edition with "Epitaph for a Tramp" unread, I pretty much knew what to expect, and it was all good.
Although they're intricately plotted and brimming with real, live, three-dimensional characters, the precociousness that would ultimately lead to "This Is Not a Novel" is fully apparent in the Fannin books.
In the first dozen or so pages of "Epitaph for a Tramp," there are enough literary references to choke a horse, with Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot and William Gaddis being among the names dropped. Wonderfully drawn Manhattan streetscapes abound, and no one who hasn't tried to sleep in a stuffy apartment when it's 90 degrees out in the steamy New York City night -- or read this book -- can know just how suffocatingly miserable it can be. Toss in some thoughts about what the Red Sox might do with their lineup after Ted Williams retires and, before too long, you've got Fannin's nymphomaniac ex-wife showing up at the door, bleeding badly from a knife wound, and finally expiring on his living-room floor. He pours himself a bourbon and lights a cigarette. No filter, of course.
The sort of tough-guy patter any devoted fan of Mickey Spillane, Charles Willeford or Jim Thompson would eagerly devour is served up pitch-perfect in Markson's depictions of Fannin's lowlife nightlife world.
"It was a man's scream. I'd heard one exactly like it a dozen years before in North Africa. Press me and I could tell you the date, the name of the crossroads, exactly what I'd been doing when it happened. The G.I. had been sleeping off a binge on the edge of a ditch. When they backed the tank off him you could have peeled up what was left of his legs to wrap your holiday mailing."
And diehard crime-fiction fans will appreciate Markson's attention to forensic detail. Did you know, for example, that a car aerial will chamber and fire a .22 caliber round and was often the central component in the zip guns used by the proto-gangstas known as juvenile delinquents? Most people don't and, since it still works, our friends in law enforcement are loathe to publicize it. The Fannin novels are filled with such appealing tidbits.
It's not often that works of such significance find their way back into print after so many decades, and the publishers, Shoemaker & Hoard, should be commended for this bit of literary archeology. While it must have been difficult to get Markson to sign off on the project, the book that resulted will undoubtedly be of interest to a broad range of the reading public.
To those who subscribe to postmodernism, the currently operative theory of literary criticism, these novels will definitely be considered art, representative early work by one of the most important American writers of the late 20th century.
That they also happen to be cracking fine yarns, real page-turners capturing the noir essence of a romantic era that seems to recede further with each passing day, may just be the icing on the cake.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||January 16 2007|