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On David Markson Tim Hull Bookseller

David Markson, more than any other contemporary writer, seems to have taken to heart Ezra Pound's warning in ABC of Reading: "Gloom and solemnity," Pound wrote in his aesthetic treatise, first published in 1934, "are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man."

That's not to say that Markson, the author of 11 novels, one book of criticism and a collection of poems between the late 1950s and just last year, isn't serious, or even gloomy and solemn at times. His books are a mixture of the comic and the gothic, the hard-boiled and the boldly experimental; but in every one of them literature-as well as art & philosophy--the great Western tradition from the Greeks on up to William Gaddis is used as a glad refuge, albeit one haunted by dark humor, irony, and a bit of anxiety.

Markson appears to have never wanted to be anything other than a great writer, and early on he sought out the company of Malcolm Lowry, Dylan Thomas and others, and was also acquainted with Kerouac and Vonnegut. He was born in 1927 in Albany, New York, and went to school at Union College and Columbia University. For most of his adult life he has lived in Greenwich Village, though he has lived for stints in Mexico, following in the footsteps of Lowry, and Europe.

Because his output has been rather limited compared to his contemporaries--he admitted in a 1990 interview to going months and even years without writing--and because his reputation and his creative energies these days, in the late evening of his career, are on the rise, Markson seems ripe for collecting, especially by those with a limited budget but an eye toward the long run.

After reading The Ballad of Dingus Magee, it's impossible to view the Western genre, whether in books or the movies, with the same seriousness again.

Markson's first books were genre novels he calls "entertainments," after Graham Greene's habit of separating his thrillers from his more literary endeavors. However, even in these early works, literature is central, and the wordplay, allusions, and quotations that define his later, more serious work are all evident, especially in his two detective novels, Epitaph For A Tramp (Dell 1959), and Epitaph For A Deadbeat (Dell 1961), both narrated by Harry Fannin, a well-read ex-college football star who has a habit of falling for the wrong girl. The Harry Fannin novels were reissued in 2007 by Shoemaker & Hoard in one volume. Miss Doll, Go Home (Dell 1965), a comic novel about expatriate writers and painters getting into trouble in Mexico, Markson's final "entertainment," is one of just a few of his books that is currently out of print.

Markson's reputation, and his money, were made with the publication of the comic anti-western The Ballad of Dingus Magee (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), which was sold to Hollywood and became a really terrible movie (Dirty Dingus Magee, 1970) starring Frank Sinatra with a screenplay penned by Joseph Heller. The book is hilarious and written in a fluid, pseudo-rural Old West style that clips along and gets deep into your head. After reading The Ballad of Dingus Magee, it's impossible to view the Western genre, whether in books or the movies, with the same seriousness again. The Ballad of Dingus Magee was reissued in 2008 by Counterpoint.

Markson's next book, Going Down (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1970), a gothic novel about expatriate writers and artists getting into trouble in Mexico, is thick with allusion and mystery and has a style that wraps around you like jungle vines. Markson has said that he hoped the book would establish him as some heir to Faulkner or, better yet, Lowry. It was excoriated by a reviewer in the New York Times, however, and a devastated Markson didn't publish much for nearly a decade afterward. Going Down was reissued in 2005 by Shoemaker & Hoard.

In Springer's Progress (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1977), a stylistic masterpiece about a non-writing, hard-drinking, libidinous Greenwich Village writer, we see the beginnings of the narrative conceit thatwould lead to Markson's greatest triumphs. When Lucien Springer, the novel's protagonist, gets a little nervous or can't think of anything to say or is involved in an awkward social situation, he thinks about trivia he has learned from a lifetime of reading, such as the fact that Michelangelo always wore his boots to bed.

This tick of Springer's becomes evermore present in what is widely considered to be Markson's best work thus far, Wittgenstein's Mistress (Dalkey Archive 1988), the story of a woman who thinks she's the last person on earth. She spends her time in her own head, as we all do, and like Springer she thinks primarily about what she has read about writers, philosophers, and artists, so that the novel is full of strange facts on the order of Michelangelo wearing is boots to bed, or that Emile Bronte kicked her dog.

Starting with Reader's Block (Dalkey Archive 1996), Markson eschews plot and character altogether and instead fills four slim volumes: Reader's Block; This Is Not A Novel (Counterpoint 2001); Vanishing Point (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004); and The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007) with a hypnotic, trivia-based retelling of Western literature and art, as if he decided to live only inside Springer's nervous, reading-addled brain for the rest of his days, finding refuge, and even meaning, in minutia about the heroes,geniuses, scoundrels and hypocrites that created all the words and images that still make glad our hearts.