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By Mike Hudson

Vanishing Point, by David Markson. Shoemaker and Hoard, Washington, D.C. 208 pages. $15 (paper).

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that David Markson and I have had an ongoing friendship for the past dozen years. In all that time, I've only seen him outside of his West Village apartment once, and that was the night I met him. He was down at the Glucksman Ireland House on Washington Square at a party for the novelist William Kennedy, and we were introduced by the poet Michael Stephens, whom I knew from working as a book reviewer at the Irish Echo.

By then, Markson had published four novels, a book of criticism, a volume of poetry and three works of pulp fiction he'd done during the late 1950s, when you could actually make a shekel or two doing such work.

He'd also worked for the Albany Times Union, where his father had been the Sunday editor, written for the Village Voice and other journals of opinion and been a figure on the New York literary scene for decades.

He came out to the Kennedy reception that night because they both grew up in Albany and were of the same generation.

Later I went to his apartment and did a piece on him for a short-lived New York fashion magazine, "Flatiron," drolly referred to as "Flatline." It got turned down, Stephens later told me, because it was mostly about baseball, dames and drinking, rather than about Markson's undeniably important contribution to American literature.

But that was what we had talked about. For the record, I believe Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress" (1980) to be the most important work of American fiction published since around 1940. I'll admit to not having read everything, but there are a lot of people with a lot more knowledge of things literary who'll back me up.

Ann Beattie, David Foster Wallace and Gilbert Sorrentino, to name just a few. They write about Markson in the most glowing terms, for all the big literary magazines, manage to use tons of SAT words in every paragraph and even have the bona fides to teach his books in various institutions of higher learning around the country.

So I decided to give the whole thing up and just commiserate with the great author on the always sad fate of his Boston Red Sox and the equally always sad fate of my Cleveland Indians. If we couldn't agree on Celine, Mailer, Lou Reed or the importance of film as an art form, at least we could agree that we both hated the Yankees. And isn't that enough?

Markson's newest, "Vanishing Point," is the third part of a series he began in 1996 with "Reader's Block" and continued with "This Is Not a Novel." Looking at them now, they all have a few things in common.

All are around 200 pages.

All have but a single character, called "Reader" in the first one, "Writer" in the second and "Author" in the new one.

All center around the themes of loss, penury and death, for the most part using almost biblical aphorisms consisting of a sentence or two to illustrate these themes in the lives of poets, painters, boxers and baseball players, notable and obscure.

Each one of the books is a little sadder than the last, but Markson eschews sentiment and the inevitability of the darkness to come is faced with an unflinching eye. Someday, they'll issue these three books in a single volume, and the epic nature of the author's vision will become more apparent.

Stephens piqued my interest a dozen years ago when, prior to introducing us, he told me in an aside that Markson was dying. He cemented the deal when he said the guy had been pals with Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Frederick Exley, Malcolm Lowry and a lot of other writers I'd always admired.

Looking back on it now, Markson's accomplishments pretty much guarantee he'll never "die." Since our introduction, we've communicated for the most part by telephone or cards and letters, even when we were living on opposite ends of 10th Street in the Village all those years ago. It's been a fine friendship, though perhaps a bit odd if judged by the usual standards.

The last time I talked to him, Markson said his next book wouldn't contain a single reference to a single goddamn baseball player, doomed poet or Renaissance artist.

I told him I'd be looking forward to it.

Next time we'll just talk about baseball.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 16 2004