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About fifty years ago, David 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. “Tramp” 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 Tramp, David Markson, 1959
Old devil-may-care Harry. Dreamed of fair women.
Her face was like something sketched in charcoal on coarse gray paper and then abandoned in the rain.
This hotel on lower Bleecker. The Watling. Found a lampswitch and shed a little light on the subject. The walls were a drab schoolroom brown. Snow White was in the outside corridor now, but she was so tight that even on a level keel she was bumping into dwarfs all over the forest.
The girl’s clothes were scattered among the debris as if she’d been caught in a cyclone without enough safety pins. Her torn brassiere was on the floor. Observant Fannin.
Okay, okay, you’re a famous writer and the disciples cluster around you like flies.
She could even look beautiful waking up. Garbo. Anna Magnani. Dietrich. Wendy Hiller. Maria Menghini Callas. Get rich wishing. Edna St. Vincent Millay? Bess Truman? The siblings Bronte, maybe?
All the things you do, the way sex is the most important part of half of them.
A paperback Book of Quotations on the stand next to the chair, tried that, stabbing a page at random.
A mighty fortress is our God, said Martin Luther.
She’s just a broad, is all. Just a broad wants some kicks. Bet the hand, Harry Fannin.
Her face was the color of ice cubes. The corners of her mouth twitched. Then her face melted and she began to shake. She did not sound like the first girl you’d pick to share a rooftop with when the dam broke.
Work out your salvation with diligence, said Gautama Buddha.
Man’s chicks are his castle. Monuments won’t wilt, won’t shrink, won’t shiver.
Guys with a notion they wanted to be artists who didn’t shave because they thought you were halfway there if you looked the part. Explained why he liked Hemingway so much.
Sophisticated young uptown ladies slumming with their toothbrushes in their pocketbooks. Girls in grimy sweatshirts with the complete works of Dylan Thomas under their arms when what they needed were cartons of Rinso.
Just like the philosopher. Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes. How curious. The life of man in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Thomas Hobbes.
No dream, Fannin. All very real. You’re the writer. So write. There was a typewriter with a sheet of paper in it.
She had abortions. Not one, two.
Rolled, squirmed, even slud, like in “he slud into third base,” from the collected writings of Jerome Herman (Dizzy) Dean.
The bohemians. The intellectuals. The really accomplished Mexican painters, like Orozco and Tamayo — Tamayo and Tamayo and Tamayo, seeps in the petty paste from plate to plate.
A set of yellowing bone china which Pocahontas had gotten as a shower gift from the girls at the wigwam. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s favorite bronze candlesticks, the one he wrote Hiawatha by the glow of. Everything else had that same twenty-seven-tenants-and-still-holding-its-own look.
She had twenty-four dollars in bills and an uncashed paycheck from the publishing house. She was a pretty girl. She was a redhead, with freckles and green eyes, and she had lovely high breasts.
It didn’t take Dashiell Hammett to figure that much of it without going down. It was as easy to read as a scrawl in a latrine.
Probably busted in on the middle of his favorite Bach cantata.
The book was a gay little thing by Thomas Mann called The Magic Mountain. Gave her the Reader’s Digest version.
Once upon a time he had also wanted to be Johnny Ringo or Wild Bill Hickok and ride a big white mare. The White Horse Tavern, then a coffee shop down on Macdougal. Knew a girl once who was crazy about white blouses.
She came apart again. All she’d say was that she thought they were amusing. This one had good legs — watched them until she turned into the lobby.
It’s nice when other people make your decisions for you.
Hell no, Fannin would be home reading witty lines out of his Bartlett’s Quotations and waiting for some potted dame to climb the stairs and fall into his lap for the big romp in the hay.
It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, said Emiliano Zapata.
There was a TV set in the corner. See if the place ever shows any more outward trace of your personality than an iron lung.
She had picked up the brassiere from the floor.
He reached the curb being so weary of the stupidity of the unenlightened masses that it was killing him.
She taught grammar school and you wouldn’t mistake her for Moll Flanders in the darkest bedroom in town. You can be doddering, bald and approaching senility and still feel awkward in front of an old-maid school teacher. Had wondered more than once if she were a virgin.
Men and women everywhere, make sure today of the salvation of your souls. Are you living a spiritual life or a carnal life? Be saved now!
Quitter Fannin. Rapidly discouraged, beaten in a nonce. In a thrice? Managed all of about eight inches in the time it takes to roast a small hen. The rolling Fannin gathers no moss. Being the lightheaded lad again.
The writer. Calling it Fannin Grows Up. Never mind the editorial comment either. It kills the motive for anybody else. He already had his notebook out.
Very important! Every Tuesday and Thursday, nine to eleven, be sure to have an experience!
The place looked as inviting as the rumpus room at Buchenwald. A well-clipped poodle was sniffing the sawdust.
Who the hell did you have in mind, W.C. Fields? Guys like, say, Einstein, Gandhi, Adlai Stevenson, Toscanini, Willie Mays — people like that, you know? It would have been like asking Bronco Nagurski if he was sure he could lift a football with all that heavy air in it.
He looked like something the Mau-Mau had left behind as a warning. Two or three nervous-looking little tables on legs carved so delicately they would probably collapse under the weight of an empty shot glass.
Hate to begin hot days with guesswork.
The dishes and silver were all Woolworth’s pride, the upholstery smelled vaguely of insecticide and old sin, and there were seven different watercolor views of the same flower pot on the wall, all executed by that color-blind old lady who turns them out for every furnished apartment in the world.
There was another siren. Sublimated it, that’s the word.
A book called Under the Volcano was the property of Ned Sommers, and two or three re-issue Bix Beiderbecke records had A. Leeds scrawled on their jackets.
Cambridge History of English Literature. Could see the full set on the wall behind him, along with what looked likeevery other juicy bit of bedtime reading from The Nicomachean Ethics to The Coming Forth of Osiris Jones.
Passed the rear of the Women’s House of Detention and that gave him a few more ideas. Anyhow, it’s an important experience for a writer.
Most of the wall space was taken up with weird, leering African masks, and there were Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling like Yuletide at the Mao Tse Tung’s.
He was sweating badly and his face was flushed. The shoelace he had tripped over was still swinging loose. He stared at the cuffs as glumly as a stripteaser confronting a low thermometer.
Probably part of it was the temperature. Maybe there was cool air on Annapurna or Orizaba.
Come see Fannin electrocute himself.
There were only eight or ten windows looking out that way, but sooner or later someone’s favorite aunt was going to open one of them to sprinkle the geraniums.
Paused to dig the stars. Dig the big hand approaching the nine and the small hand touching the one. Chapter three, book sixty-four, verse nineteen, brought to you by Welch’s Grape Juice.
Forty-one, all the way from the Cloisters down to the Battery and back, all between roughly two and three-thirty in the morning. The Bird blew there once, man. Charley Parker in the flesh.
He was reading a paperback called Sidewalk Caesar by someone named Donald Honig. That morning’s Tribune was folded back to Red Smith.
She put in the scotch first and then had to into the kitchen for the ice. The drink would have been just right for a teetotaling Lilliputian.
So Thomas Hobbes says the life of man in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Win one for Hobbes. You can do it, Fannin.
Her arms were clasped around her calves and her head was pressed forward, and a Modigliani or a Gauguin could have done something remarkable with her.
The same…same old Harry. The Second Coming could have waited.
Death by water. The fire sermon — The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ.
The sheet was twisted low across her thighs and her hands lay motionless at either side of her, upturned and curled like dead things in the wake of the plague.
There was a fraction of a second of absolute stillness, as expectant as if Mitropoulos had just lifted his baton. That Bach canata came back instead. Two wrong endings of the same double feature.
Life was going on. You couldn’t be sure exactly why.
In addition to work forthcoming in QUICK FICTION, ANNALEMMA, NIGHT TRAIN, and ARTIFICE, William Walsh’s stories and derived texts have appeared in NEW YORK TYRANT, LIT, PANK, KILL AUTHOR, ROSEBUD, CAKETRAIN, JUKED, McSWEENEY’S INTERNET TENDENCY, and other journals. My first book, Without Wax, was published in 2008 by Casperian Books, and a book of derived texts called Questionstruck was released earlier this year by Keyhole Press. In spring 2010 Keyhole will release a story collection of mine called Ampersand, Mass.