As PW treks to David Markson's place in Greenwich Village, the thought occurs that the apartment is almost equally distant from two of the great New York literary saloons of the last half-century—the White Horse, still happily alive over on Hudson Street, and the late, lamented Lion's Head, which lived a couple of blocks east on Christopher Street. Both bars have rich literary histories: the legend says that Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the White Horse—he actually died at close-by St. Vincent's Hospital days later—and the Lion's Head was home to several generations of writers from Norman Mailer and Frederick Exley to Frank McCourt. But one of the lucky few who was in both places at the precise serendipitous time was Markson, author of Vanishing Point, just published by Shoemaker & Hoard.
The thing that strikes you about Markson's comfortable one-bedroom apartment is his wonderful photo collection. In the living room there's a picture of his idol, Malcolm Lowry ("He was like my spiritual father") and a remarkable picture of the young Markson, strikingly handsome, bellying up to the bar at the White Horse with Dylan Thomas. In a hallway, a whole wall is filled with Markson and such literary icons as Red Smith, Walter Abish, Seymour Krim, Derek Mahon, Pete Hamill, William Gaddis, Conrad Aiken, Michael Harrington, C.K. Williams, Joseph Heller, Fred Exley, Jack Kerouac ("he's about ready to pass out," says Markson in an aside), Frank McCourt and Philip Roth.
Markson's life journey began in Albany, N.Y., in 1927. He is a contemporary of another famous son of Albany, William Kennedy, although they didn't become friends until years later. Markson first found Greenwich Village in the late 1940s while in the U.S. Army, assigned to the old Archives Building on Christopher Street while working as a journalist for the Armed Forces Press Service. "I came to New York to go to Columbia graduate school," he recalls, "but I knew that if I stayed here, the Village was the only place I was going to live, and my wife [the agent Elaine Markson] felt the same way."
There was also no doubt it was going to be the writing life for Markson. "I think I knew I wanted to be a writer pretty early," he says. "I was working for the [Albany] paper writing sports by the time I was 16. So I knew I had a facility. I began to read, and eventually I knew I was going to write. But it took me forever. There I was, reading Joyce and writing a master's essay on Lowry's Under the Volcano only four years after the book came out—that's unheard of. No volume of criticism or what not. Yet I wasn't writing, I was bullshitting, substituting another word.
"Because I was doing nothing, I had to prove I could put a book on paper, so I wrote a couple of crime stories, three of them in fact.... [But] I never had any compulsions, any drives.... I swear I can go indefinitely without working. Ted Hoagland came into the Lion's Head one day with a big grin on his face. It was like one o'clock. I said, 'Boy, you look happy.' He said, 'I finished a book this morning.' I know, you son-of-a-bitch, you'll start another one this afternoon. 'No,' he says, 'tomorrow.' I understand it, I admire it, I envy it, but..."
Markson's big break came with his novel The Ballad of Dingus Magee (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966). "I was already working on Going Down [published in 1970 by Holt]," recalls Markson, "and on sort of an impulse I did Dingus Magee. It's intricate and carefully plotted. I did it in a shorter time than any other book, and it's the only book I ever made money on. I had a bunch of rejections because everybody said there's no such thing as a satirical western. Then a movie came out called Cat Ballou [which won an Academy Award for Lee Marvin]. That suddenly made it interesting for the Hollywood types. So when Dingus Magee was published, they jumped in and bought it. I got $100,000, and that was in 1966. After taxes and agency fees and debts, we lived on it for three or four years. We lived a year and a half in Europe." The movie version, called Dirty Dingus Magee, came out in 1970. Despite Frank Sinatra playing the lead and a screenplay written in part by Joseph Heller, the film is largely forgotten.
Saloons have played a big part for Markson as a refuge from the perils of writing. "When you're a writer, you're home alone all day," he says. "You don't have a job to go to. I talk very, very little. It was a godsend to walk into the Lion's Head and talk to Pete Hamill, Joe Flaherty, Ted Hoagland, Bill Sheed, Fred Exley, Mike Harrington. Times change, but then it's Richard Price and Rod Steiger. So many journalists. If you wanted to bullshit about baseball, you could talk to Vic Ziegel, a columnist, and Larry Merchant, who in those days was a columnist, or ballplayers—Jim Bouton or Spaceman Bill Lee, who began to come in when he was in town. As I say, any time of day or night when I was lonely or wanting to get away from the desk there was that place. It broke my heart when it closed."
How Markson first found the White Horse is a rich story with a literary bent. "I was in Columbia graduate school or had just finished," he recalls, "but was still living there, and Dylan Thomas gave a reading. He was my favorite poet and we went back to talk to him afterwards. I said, would you like to have a drink with us, the graduate students, a few would-be writers? He had to do something first, but he met us at a bar [near Columbia], the old West End, and we were chatting, and he was impressed that I was in correspondence with Lowry because they had known each other. So when we said, 'Can we do this again?' he said, 'Yes,' and I called him, and I picked him up at the hotel with a couple of friends, and he said, 'Let's go down to the Horse.' I didn't know what he was talking about. So all these people who over the years have gone to the White Horse because of Dylan Thomas—I'm one of the few who I can say was taken there by Dylan Thomas."
His introduction to Malcolm Lowry was just as dramatic. "I wrote him, and I must have hit the right chord." In response, he received back a 15-page handwritten letter from Lowry. "We became very close. That very next summer  I was working in a logging camp in Oregon, and we got shut down because of fire danger, and I hitchhiked up to British Columbia. [Lowry] had said, 'Come any time.' I spent a week in the woods. They had no plumbing, an outhouse. Then a couple of years later, they stayed with me on their way to Europe for a couple of weeks. When he died, Lowry's wife sent two cablegrams, one to her sister and one to me from England. That's how close I was by then."
Malcolm Lowry's Volcano (Times Books, 1978) was an expansion of Markson's master's thesis. "I just kept on reading the book and finding stuff," he says, "all these parallels with Dante and Faust and Oedipus. Somebody writing about it once said, 'The book is an education in Western culture.' All this stuff was deliberate and conscious on Lowry's part. I never found anything that was accidental. I'd say, 'You couldn't be aware of this and that,' and he'd make some kind of joke to carry it a step farther, so I realized he knew even more than I was talking about. So I just think it's an overwhelming book still."
After the publication of Springer's Progress (Holt, 1977), Markson didn't have another novel published for 11 years. "Wittgenstein's Mistress was finished in '82," he says. "And it set the world's record—it had 55 rejections. 55! Not all flat turndowns. About a third of the people didn't like it. Another third didn't understand it. And that, you don't mind because, as I think I said before, a good percentage of editors are C students. The other third just killed me. They loved the book. They called it a masterpiece. The letters to my agent sounded like nominations to the Nobel Prize. But then they said—this is the classic publishing problem—they couldn't get it past the sales people....
"Finally a nonprofit press, the Dalkey Archive, published it. It was really this guy, Steve Moore, who had just gone to work there who took it with him. That's why there was that tremendous gap in time. I wasn't getting any work done. I was depressed. I knew it was as good a book as I was going to write."
Markson says his ex-wife, literary agent Elaine Markson—they were divorced in 1994—saved Wittgenstein's Mistress. "Give Elaine credit," he says fondly. "Elaine said to our son, 'Your father's written a great book.' And Jed said, 'a million dollar's great?' And Elaine said, 'No, not that kind of great.' He said 'oh, he's done it again!'"
Reader's Block (Dalkey Archive, 1996) pioneered a new kind of novel, piecing together vignettes, often in non sequitur fashion. Markson has followed the same format with This Is Not a Novel (Counterpoint, 2001) and now with Vanishing Point. "All of my books have been full of intellectual odds and ends," says Markson, who followed Jack Shoemaker and Trish Hoard when they left Counterpoint to set up their own imprint under the Avalon publishing umbrella.
"That all comes out of the writers I've been talking about: Lowry, Gaddis, Joyce, of course. In Reader's Block, 20% of the book is still about this guy Reader. Or at times it's about the one I call Protagonist, who is the hero of the book he's thinking about writing. There is an occasional setting, the house he lives in, or visualizing Protagonist on the beach or in a cemetery or something. I didn't know the extent to which it worked or not, but people responded well. So the next two I tried to carry it further.... I called him Reader in one book; the next book he's Writer. It says Writer is sick of telling stories and sick of creating characters and sick of drawing scenes and background.... All the way through This Is Not a Novel he's talking about people's deaths, then at the end he's talking about all his own illnesses. The ending has pained people. I think I went even farther in [Vanishing Point]."
Death is clearly a central theme of Markson's last three novels. In fact, the cover of Reader's Block features a cemetery. "I suppose it's because they were written when I was no longer young," admits Markson. "You get to be a certain age and you're conscious of it. You get to be an age and you are losing friends and as someone mentioned recently, 'At this age, you don't replace them either.' Yes, it's a preoccupation. I can't conceive of having thought this way when I was younger but at a certain time in your life it becomes an inevitability of existence."
"In Reader's Block I got hung up on the suicides and listed all those suicides. Then in This Is Not A Novel, how people died. Vanishing Point was where they died. I guess just because in the first of the three I focused on him as being old, then I got the idea in the book he's writing of moving his man to a cemetery, which is symbolic. You look out your window and there's a graveyard which says Memento Mori, remember you must die. So once I got started I was stuck with it in one sense, it became part of the essence of the books."
Markson, a fanatical Boston Red Sox fan, was asked if baseball had influenced his writing in any way. "No," he says laughing, "except I learned from Ted Williams that you have to work at it." Which is a pretty good description of David Markson today—still working and getting better with age.