Friday, June 17, 2016

The Book You Have to Read:
“Epitaph for a Tramp,” by David Markson

(Editor’s note: This is the 137th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
What makes detective fiction fun (for me, anyway) is what happens when the detective isn’t detecting. For some writers, the form is a framework that allows them to investigate various segments of society and make comments with an outsider’s point of view. In addition, I appreciate a glimpse at the personalities of private eyes—some of them quirky, most unsentimental grinds, but the majority of them being intelligent, independent, and possessing a distinct point of view. In the case of David Markson’s Harry Fannin, one might add impulsive; but nowhere near as bad a decision-maker as the round-heeled adventuress he marries in 1959’s Epitaph for a Tramp.

In this first novel of a two-part series (the sequel, Epitaph for a Dead Beat, was published in 1961), Markson drops a situation of personal loss into Fannin’s life which could have provided sufficient motivation for a P.I. on a quest for many books thereafter. Flippant and well-read, Fannin meets his match on a Long Island beach after a midnight skinny dip. Coming upon the beautiful and brainy Catherine Hawes, Fannin finds this 24-year-old has all the requirements for a bookish man of action: studied at Barnard College, with a Greenwich Village apartment and employment in the sales department at a New York City publishing house—and a reckless sense of adventure. The two quip over T.S. Eliot, then the “meet cute” is fleshed out with some hard-boiled flirtation.
“You’re staring at me.”

“The way you stare at four aces,” I told her.

“Because you always think you misread the hand?”

“Partly. Mainly because you’re sure somebody’s going to call a misdeal before you get a chance to bet.”
Don’t say she didn’t try to tell him. Fannin should’ve asked for a new deal—and for a fresh deck of cards, too. He refuses to listen to Hawes’ advice, and the next thing he knows he’s married to a nymphomaniac with enough kinks to make the marriage bed feel like Freud’s couch. She’s as “promiscuous as a mink” and “as discriminating as a hungry hound at the town dump.” Markson pulls no punches with Cathy, and he reveals no appeal in her with which the reader might empathize either, except perhaps for her abject vulnerability. She’s a tool for the plot as much as men are a tool for her. Cathy philanders, Fannin suspects and snoops, and it’s no surprise the marriage doesn’t last a year.

Cathy is a capricious risk-taker, that’s why she married Fannin in the first place. She leaves Fannin and, “fed up enough with her Keats-spouting Village boyfriends,” ups the ante and takes kicks to the next level. With her new man, Duke Sabatini, and his “greasy” punk sidekick, she and these knock-around characters rob a factory payroll in Troy, New York. The last time Fannin sees his lost-love is in the aftermath of the heist. She staggers into his apartment, mortally wounded by a knife attack, “the stain as big as a six-dollar sirloin beneath her breast, dark and seeping.” Cathy dies in Fannin’s arms.

Nobody seems to know what Cathy has done with the $40,000 payday, not even Sabatini or his accomplice, who are quickly rounded up. So it falls to Fannin to retrace her steps in hopes of finding the money as well as her killer. That’s when Markson begins the tour of beatnik hangouts, hipster pads, and habitués of small-time criminals.

(Left) The back cover of Tramp

Homing in on the killers, Fannin and a police homicide detective named Brannigan roust some uptown hipsters. One, thinking he’s about to get busted for dope, jumps to his death. The other, a jazz musician and a master of baffling beatnik banter, leads Fannin on a merry verbal chase through the intricacies of that patois. When Fannin and Nate Brannigan lean on him for the facts plainly explained, this is what they get:
“Okay, dads, okay. But give a cat room, stand back, you’re fogging my spectacles. I’ll reconstruct, I’ll come on strong in all details. But like allow me room to stroll my thoughts, huh, man?”
Plot-wise, Epitaph for a Tramp is pretty routine. Fannin eliminates the obvious suspects, bumps heads with Manhattan detectives investigating the murder, and eliminates the red herrings. When Fannin breaks the tragic news to Cathy’s schoolmarm older sister early on (she “needed a man a lot more than she needed consolation,” opines Fannin), eyebrows might raise and readers may place her on the short-list of suspects.

Fannin has plenty of opinions on literature, too, and he isn’t shy about sharing them. He quotes English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The Magic Mountain, he says, is “a gay little thing.” He attempts to “make sense out of something called The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot,” and finds praise for avant-garde novelist William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. Surely Fannin must have known his way around the little literary magazines of his day, but this doesn’t prevent him from getting his head into pulp-fiction gumshoe-mode and giving pulp writer Donald Honig, author of Sidewalk Caesar (1958), a shout-out. Fannin also expresses some crisp and world-weary observations—such as, when he lights a cigarette, “the smoke turned to steel wool in my mouth.”

As good as Markson is in the P.I. genre, and I think he gives as good as Raymond Chandler can dish out, Markson eventually put aside pulp in favor of experimental literature, joining the ranks of Gaddis and his ilk. For other writers, it sometimes worked the other way around. In need of quick cash to keep the dolce vita afloat in champagne, Gore Vidal wrote a pulp thriller (1953’s Thieves Fall Out) and three detective novels. The great Ezra Pound, while taking a break from nursing modern literature into being, had the audacity to attempt a detective novel with his lover Olga Rudge. Mercifully, that book (The Blue Spill) was abandoned, only to be published after their deaths.

There are some fingernail-raking-across-the-blackboard moments in Epitaph for a Tramp, such as when “Village fag” is used dismissively, and a slovenly apartment is described as “inviting as the rumpus room at Buchenwald.” I suppose these could be chalked up to a certain brash naiveté rather than callous animosity, and they are perhaps lingering evidence of an era that strove for homogeneity of thought and attitude in a less sensitive manner than is practiced today.

Harry Fannin is skeptical man, a trait that’s crucial for a detective. Without his bullshit detector, he’s out of business. But Fannin is also a hopeful man. His personal life adrift, he washes ashore one hot summer night on a lonely beach to find Catherine Hawes, half-naked and all-beautiful. She teases and taunts but Fannin hears a kindred spirit singing a siren’s song and he’s smitten. In a moment of clarity, Catherine tells him to “take another swim and wash the hayseed out of your hair.” He ignores her, and his life is soon after dashed upon the rocks. No fictional private eyes are perfect or infallible, and it is these humanizing traits, along with the characters’ dogged search for the truth, that keeps readers returning to them over and over.

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