Dead Beat

Sad news that David Markson has passed away. Posted below is a text derived from one of his early books. About fifty years ago, Markson wrote a pair of hard-boiled detective novels set in Greenwich Village, Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat. The books read like beat-flavored Spillane, and within the private eye character of Harry Fannin you can see the beginnings of the voice, form, and preoccupations of Markson’s later innovative novels, Readers Block, Vanishing Point, This is Not a Novel, and The Last Novel. “Dead Beat” is an excised narrative that examines Markson’s core themes: literature, art, music, philosophy, pop culture, sex, and death.

A text derived from Epitaph for a Dead Beat, David Markson, 1961

The building was ancient, brick, and its glass vestibule door was open.

This is Harry Fannin. Home all alone. He was on a narrow disheveled bed, on his back. One of his shoes was off, and there as a rip in the heel of his blue sock. He was also handsome, although in a sallow sort of way.

The building was as quiet as a sunken ship. Everything was scarred, dilapidated. The bed unmade, and a week’s filthy laundry flung around the floor, looking like soggy flotsam on an unswept strand. There were thousands of books. A console phonograph was fairly new, and there were at least two hundred records stacked near it. There was a complex radio mechanism, and there was a tape recorder.

The human eye isn’t constructed to see around corners.

She glided to the bed, naked as a reptile. She giggled absurdly. She was as luxuriously molded as the hull of a yacht. She had a few more pounds of it than the boys in the fashion business would have allowed, but then the same boys would design a blanket roll without ever spending a night in the woods.

This is Fannin. Stiff as Nebuchadnezzar’s femur.

It was folded into a small tube of white tissue, and she had difficulty unwrapping it. Finally she held out the thin marijuana reefer. The way she did it would have made it acceptable at a D.A.R. meeting.

Poets don’t just vanish.

H. Fannin, realist of the old school, like Walter Mitty. On your feet, Fannin. Too bad you’re not one of those Mickey Spillane detectives–

He’s his ironic old self again. The expression on his face was reflective, gloomy, without much meaning. How droll.

Aphrodite’s fig leaf. Cheap theatrics and a thirty-cent striptease to boot, to keep your mind off the bum acting. Every doll to her own debauch. Leave us just say she is wont to wander.

There were more feathers. What else, Fannin? Button, button, who’s got the button? No Fannin, not now. Signs, signs, everyplace signs. It’s like Shakespeare and Bacon, isn’t it?

There were even books in the bathroom. Too many books. A lifetime full, and nothing else, nothing else at all.

Thoreau’s Walden was propped against a sugar bowl on the table, and something called The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha was held open by a half loaf of black bread.

How about the Dead Sea Scrolls? Surely you have an opinion about the Dead Sea Scrolls?

There was a Benzedrine inhaler in the bathroom. Try it, Fannin.

What do you see in that inkblot, Mr. Fannin?

Did Aphrodite have a fig leaf?

She was a blonde, with high cheekbones and a delicate face that would not have been out of place on Harper’s Bazaar. It would not have been a calamity on Playboy either, since there as nothing high fashioned about the rest of her.

He had on a tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows, and he was toying with an unlit pipe. He looked as menacing at Rumpelstiltskin. Harry Fannin! Harry! Old Fannin himself–Nothing defective about this detective.

Never attended a poetry recitation before. Emily Dickinson had reached immortality the same way.

He’s beautiful inside, priestly. The complacent scoffing masses–dear God, a religious revelation could appear on their television screens and they’d phone for a repair man. He threw the handkerchief away from himself, like Billy Graham giving up on Las Vegas.

What are you working on now, Mr. Fannin?

He fastened his hands to his hips. He did it with all the drawling indolence of James Stewart in the scene when the Bad Guy is about to learn he’s been making sport of the wrong townspeople. He was being as outraged as Captain Bligh when Clark Gable set him adrift in the dory. Damn your black heart, Fannin.

You’ve done a novel. It was going to be the greatest spiritual exercise since Peyton Place. Not that it’s a reputable publisher–

Inscrutable and alone–He would have had the same look on his face it he’d been caught slipping a book under his coat at Brentano’s. The usual imposing American intellectuals were going slowly blind in the glare of television screens behind random windows.

It’s Zen that started it all. Zen. Zen Buddhism, you must know about it–?

–you can’t turn around without hearing words like satori and atman and Lord knows what else, all of it mixed up with undergraduate profundity and stale beer–

The room contained a single uncovered cot set about a foot away from a side wall, a straight chair under a high barred window, a telephone on the floor. Zen Bedism.

By the old Moulmein pagoda, lookin’ lazy to the sea, there’s a Beatnik girl a-settin’, and she’s getting’ high on tea.

How many of your ex-girlfriends are dead who were reading Dylan Thomas within the week?

She glanced down into the pasteurized cleavage at the top of her dress. She had too much raw sensuality to move sloppily. She had small bright teeth. She had boldly painted lips and flashing dark eyes, and her hair was so brilliantly black that it looked almost wet.

Lolita, a sad story about a twelve-year-old girl who couldn’t find anyone her own age to play with.

Listen, they shot Gandhi, didn’t they. They shot Draja Mikhailovitch and Private Prewitt.

–his mother told him he was a poet. He’s off writing sonnets to a dirty sock.

There was an expensive hi-fi arrangement, and wrought-iron racks were jammed with records and books. Orange crates, driftwood, sprawling Beatniks–

It was a nice waist, trim and girlish. Heifetz could have strung a bow on the tendons at the back of her calves.

Like his pad had gone to pot since the domestic tranquility had terminated. And in his brother’s pad are many mansions, you dig?

She broke apart like a bridge collapsing, in slow motion, letting herself fall to the side with her face in her hands. Even torn up that way, she was lovely.

He was too old to be a Beatnik. Cotton Mather Fannin. Let’s have a sermon or something. Do a textual exegesis of The Cantos of Jayne Mansfield. Shoot poets just for practice. Bing–smack in the middle of the iambic pentameter–

He stared at his palms. A writer. You’ve got to feel the throbbing pulse of the corner grocer, to contemplate the navel of the Chinaman who does your undershirts.

DiMaggio was easy. DiMaggio did not smile. Giovanni Boccaccio DiMaggio

One of those rich hens who thinks it’s quaint to let a pack of poets with greasy hands paw the draperies. She would have held Iago’s, if he was the guy she happened to have to go to the station house with.

Cop country. As cheerful as a leg in traction, as inviting as a secondhand toothbrush.

Cop country. Hoodlums, junkies, crooked cops, racketeers, at least one murderer.

Cop country. As bleak as picked bones, as dismal as the floor of the sea.

Artists, social exiles–there was always a lot of sensitivity on the loose down there, a lot of overplayed emotion.

Grandma Moses wiped her paint brushes on rags cleaner than the shirt he had on. He laughed. Not a laugh in any ordinary sense. It came honking up out of his throat like a flight of geese out of a marsh.

He’s a bright fellow–could have been a writer, perhaps even a lawyer. Literally.

He was just leaning forward with his head bent and his arms triangulated backwards against the arms of the chair, like Ichabod Crane on a slow horse.

When a man has not been able to recognize a beautiful woman as such since his late twenties, he can lose interest in certain of the more trivial amenities.

She was handsome enough to have lived well in concubinage.

Middle class morality is primeval. Philosophical Fannin. Talking about his troubles had even given him a shabby sort of dignity.

No poetry reading tonight?

Poets. Beatniks. God almighty.

In answer to your question friend–no there ain’t no goddam poetry reading tonight.

Big son of a bitch, too, looks like he could wrestle Antonio Rocca better than writing poems. Trying to ignore him would have been like trying to ignore Kanchenjunga.

Characters talking all kinds of big words when what it adds up to, they can’t hold a job. Intellectuals.

Beatniks. The same slobs been hanging around the Village twenty years, this year they got a name. One more goddam poet or Beatnik son of a bitch sticks his nose in that door–

This an event sinister, Harry? Who do it, voodoo it? Boy, them poets. Deep, man, deep. But no poetry readings.

He scribbled two novels, both pretty hip–anyhow none of this sloppy Beat boff that’s all mushy chorus and no melody. According to community folk tale, it was a real squooshy m??nage-??-trois.

Except what’s the moral? Writers, man. Too much brain work. It gets real hot inside the skull, you know?

What are you working on, Fannin? It was almost an ultimate satirical indignity. The groaning gumshoe. The detective profession was on the skids. Percy Bysshe Fannin, the Shelley of Sherlocks. The Keats of the Keyhole.

Who’s a painter named Ivan Klobb? A cool specimen. He’s got a showing in some far-out uptown gallery next week. Mucho nudes.

There were sounds of cool horn that could have been Miles Davis. The air was rank. Tut’s other tomb, like.

He communes with the dark night of his soul. He hibernates in one room when it frosts up. Harry goes for dames. It’s kind of a fad.

The knapsack seemed to be filled with equal quantities of canned goods and paperback books.

You read Corso and Ginsberg to each other–Corso and Ginsberg. Who are Corso and Ginsberg? Who are Corso and Ginsberg–

Poets. Harmless phonies who simply haven’t outgrown their adolescence.

The girl looked as delicate as old dreams. She was voluptuous as overripe fruit. They should have printed her picture on the one-dollar bill.

About the book. It looks as though there’s going to be a movie sale, a big one.

Came up with a fifth of Old Crow on which the seal had not been broken. Drink it, Harry.

A thousand lights came on. They kept bursting like expanding stars.

He was being pleasant enough, but there was something spinsterish about his manner.

A lot of people know about the smoked fish? Six cans of oysters and a slab of Bel Paese cheese. Oysters are animals, not fish.

Whatever became of Sacco and–oh, sure, poor old Sacco and Vanzetti–Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italians up in New England in the–

Being in jail does something to a man’s soul. Something ultimate. It makes him a saint. It makes him–why, it makes him holy. So get him a tin cup, like. He can go beg alms.

It was a trifle queer, come to reconsider. Queer how? Zen fruitism. Fannin was just raving, in lieu of thought.

Something called The History of Rome Hanks. The paperback title was Dishonored Flesh

What do you do with the right hand–save it for Guy Fawkes’ Day?

She was leggy, and she had almost too much bosom for her slight shoulders and long neck.

The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac. Max Kerouac. Got any ideas, Kerouac?

One sporty suggestion from the right nitwit and the whole pack of them could have been in a caravan of stolen cars on their way to Denver.

Someone had draped a rag over the one bulb. His poetic flame. Maybe that was why he had all his clothes off, so that the glow would not be obstructed. He was naked as a new-dropped giraffe.

The place was just another furnished apartment, melancholy as a hand-me-down bathrobe. It was a place to sleep. The place was as quiet as an unlit cigarette. In some remote future era it was going to drive an archaeologist insane.

Then without any other sign he threw himself against the balustrade and began to sob like a baby. Two hundred pounds of blubbering Beatnik.

Go, Fannin, go–Take it again, Harry, we’ll go all the way this time– Zen Bootism. Zen Boothism.

There seems to be a moral there, Fannin, if you’ve got sufficient wit to find it.

Did Katharine Hepburn fall into a pool in the Philadelphia Story? She should have, if she didn’t.

It wasn’t a mirror it was a portrait of someone who’d been buried at sea.

On little cat feet, like Sandburg’s fog, and as quiet as a Robert Frost snowfall. No gun,no switchblade. Not even an Oscar Williams Treasury of Mongolian Verse.

Fannin? Little Harry is just shy. Poor Harry. Like an architect of epic odes, espying the smoked oysters.

Oysters were animals, not fish.

People are good, Fannin. People have beautiful souls. Marley? Oh, sure, Marley was dead, dead as a doornail. A clich??, or had Dickens invented it? Marley? Bob Crachit? Tiny Tim? A black ceiling. Black, Ebenezer? Black walls also. Had an appointment with Fagin. Dr. Zhivago? Dr. Spock?

Do you find total strangers smirking behind their hands when you walk into a room? Must have looked like Raskolnikov on his way to get rid of the ax. Must have looked like Yorrick when they dug him up.

A record ended with a screech and someone started to monkey with the machine. The boy at the phonograph began to dig through a stack of records.

Probably it’s idle scratch. Just dust on the needle, you dig? Audio hallucination, without doubt.

People are good, people have beautiful souls. This is not reassuring enough for your caviling conscience.

There had been about forty books on two metal shelves above an unpainted wood table. It didn’t seem that he would have had the time, but he’d gotten his hands on each of them, rending bindings and shredding pages as if he’s decided that literature had been the cause of all his troubles.

He was an author, that boy. Don’t know if he was any good or not. The light snapped off.

He’s dead, eh?

As dead as Dickens.

Companion Fannin piece called TRAMP at Electric Literature.