I pretty much raced through The Ballad of Dingus Magee this weekend, and I’m thrilled that Counterpoint Press has brought out this first of Markson’s pulp novels. I have become a big fan of pulp in the past few years, but even when I read trash (or “trash”) I want to read something by someone who could write. I definitely appreciate Hard Case Crime, for example, for separating the wheat from the chaff for me. But it’s sort of more fun and exciting to see the pulp version of someone who now writes “literary fiction”—though in the case of Markson, he is so experimental that I’m not sure that term even applies.
Dingus Magee is, it turns out, emphatically not a Western—it’s a comedy of errors that just happens to revolve around some Wild West outlaws roaming a New Mexico Territory town named for a whore’s most valuable attribute. Extremely bawdy and at all times comical, this was hardly what I expected after Markson’s detective novels were so truly nailed-down noir I don’t think anyone cracked a smile through either of them.
Here, instead, we have a cast of characters seemingly straight out of any Western: the outlaw with a price on his head, the lawman out to hunt him down, the madam who cares only about what’s good for business, the Doc who patches Dingus up on the quiet, the schoolmarm from back East, and sundry Indians and prostitutes. But the outlaw has hardly ever committed a crime except by accident—at least until the bumbling lawman made himself such an easy target. The doctor, who knows just how unromantic the Wild West really is, wants to hire actors and go on tour to bilk more Easterners. And the respectable unmarried teacher seduces one man after another until the last is entrapped into marrying her. And let’s just say that in the end, good does not exactly triumph over evil—not that it’s clear what that would even mean in this context.
A short novel, I found this a quick and charming read (where “charming” somehow includes language on a par with Deadwood, though somewhat more creative), recommended for a comical afternoon or so. And of course I would recommend it to any fan of Markson, for the pure fascination factor if nothing else. But there is something else: he is just a damn good writer, even with the most bizarre of material.