A ballad of Dingus Magee
Reading the obituary of David Markson (pictured) in the New York Times yesterday made me hope that in the Afterlife I’ll have time to read what 20th-century literature I missed and shouldn’t have. Times writer Bruce Weber makes the pertinent point: Markson was a novelist known mainly to other writers of his time.
I hate it when I find a person whose work I should have known in his or her lifetime because I come across an obituary, especially when this writer did such a glorious thing as to title a 1965 novel The Ballad of Dingus Magee.
I like Markson even more because of the sheer fact that he wrote his Columbia master’s thesis on Under the Volcano, a novel that blew my mind in my early 20s. He was later friends with Malcolm Lowry himself, and also Conrad Aiken. Markson drank his beer at the Lion’s Head, in Manhattan, so perhaps he ran into Frederick Exley, too.
Bruce Weber notes in his obit:
David Markson, whose wry, elliptical novels probing the scattered mind of the artist and the unruly craft of making art were frequently called postmodern and experimental and almost always surprisingly engaging and underappreciated, died Friday in his Greenwich Village apartment. He was 82.
His former wife, Elaine Markson, who was also his literary agent, said that the cause of death had not been established but that he had had cancer.
Though his books — including “Springer’s Progress” (1977), “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” (1988) and “This Is Not a Novel” (2001) — were often admiringly reviewed, Mr. Markson was a novelist well known largely to other novelists. This was partly because he was a central figure in the Village writing scene in the 1960s, a frequenter of literary watering holes like the Lion’s Head, but also because he eschewed conventional novelistic forms and tropes. Like other experimentalists, he made the form of the novel, at least in part, its subject.
Marrying your agent — is that or is that not a smart move? Mmm. . .
What grabbed me most about Markson, however, was his trajectory as a fiction writer: in his early to mid-part of his career, he wrote crime novels, and in the last third of his life, from the 1970s to 2007, wrote his masterpieces. Did he wait? Did he need the money of more popular genres when he was younger?
But. . .The Ballad of Dingus Magee. My god, what a wonderfully rotten character name. This novel is a “western spoof,” and the trailer below, for the film version, Dirty Dingus Magee, starring Frank Sinantra (of all people!), serves as enough of an indicator that this was a probable model for Blazing Saddles:
It’s all there — the frontier whorehouse, the inept American cavalry, and every stereotypical angle Hollywood ever took on depictions of Native Americans, including both Sinatra and a white actress in heavy make-up. It is a spoof, to be sure, to the degree that it spoofs itself. Why didn’t Dirty Dingus Magee become a cult film? Perhaps Mike Harvkey knows.
Dirty Dingus Magee was not the working title of the film, but somehow it became the eventual name. One might wonder, as T/S’er Jeff Koyen asked me, how a 1970 “western spoof” starring Frank Sinatra did at the box office a year after Easy Rider?
“Dingus” has really only one main English slang translation: it means “penis.” It’s a 19th century euphemism derived from the German word, ding, meaning “thing.” According to the book Sexual Slang: A Compendium of Offbeat Words and Colorful Phrases from Shakespeare to Today (1993), “dingus” can also mean “dildo.”
Sure, you can use “dingus” in the same way you might say, “Whatchamacalit” — as a nonsense placeholder. But I’ve never heard it used that way, and would laugh if I did, because the few times I’ve ever heard “dingus” used, it was in the correct way, in a Norman-Mailer-style sentence referring to a “giant dingus” or, “You stupid dingus.”
I grew up around a lot of 1950s-era people. They had their own dirty slang. Imagine what a “dirty dingus” must be — that’s who Frank Sinatra was on screen.
So, here’s to David Markson, whose novels I have not yet read, and who I hope made a ton of loot off the film deal for The Ballad of Dingus Magee.
Read the full obit for Peter Hamil’s writerly praise and Alice Denham’s womanly praise.