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BOOK REVIEW By Mike Hudson

It has been said that the famous French chemist Frederick Kekule solved the problem of the benzine ring through an imagery experience that occurred as he drifted off to sleep. He imagined "a circle of serpents chasing each other's tails."
Once he made the connection between the serpents and the various chemical elements, the solution became obvious. In this new book, novelist David Markson continues his quest for similar solutions.

"The Last Novel" is the fourth and final installment in a tetralogy Markson began with "Reader's Block" in 1996, and continued in "This Is Not a Novel" (2001), and "Vanishing Point" (2004). Non-linear. Collage-like. Self referential, he might say.

Or not.

Using the deaths, penury and substance-abuse problems of previous writers, artists, performers and baseball players as touchstones, the new book is, for some reason, decidedly less sad than its predecessors.

Critics are held in special contempt. Asked what he thought of critics, Markson notes, John Osborne said the question was akin to asking a lamp post what it thought of dogs. A dirty trick for them, then, involving a cat thrown from a fourth-story window.

Or not.

Smart people, it seems, no longer care for book reviews of the straightforward variety, those that tell the prospective reader, "This is an excellent book, and you really ought to read it." Or, conversely, "This thing stinks on ice."

"It is a book which, no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough," Hemingway wrote of Cyril Connolly's "The Unquiet Grave."

In the Sept. 4, 1956, number of "Look" magazine.

When will we meet again?
When the autumn leaves that fall from the trees
Are green and spring up again.

You can read a short story by William Kennedy on the back cover of the menu at Jack's Oyster House on State Street in Albany. On the back cover of "The Last Novel," you can read one of his short reviews.

"This is brilliant work. ... Markson's hard-edged wit, his erudition, and his honesty in distilling so much life stand as great entertainment; but shaping this into a face-off with his own death, to that I say bravo."

A foul ball, off the bat of Ted Williams, caught while on a date with a woman at Yankee Stadium.

His own death, or that of the novel?

A small and forlorn squeeze bottle of French's mustard in an otherwise nearly vacant refrigerator. No pickles. Reality intrudes. Gone the romantic notion of pastrami and cream cheese on a bagel. Poverty, or the need to go to the store and pick up a few things?

The Redhead looked up from her reading. "There aren't any poor people living in the West Village," she said.

Feb. 2, 1978. Sid Vicious died on. In the East Village.

Has anyone ever read McMurtry's account of Gus' death in "Lonesome Dove" and not been reduced to tears?

Novelist as critic: "Hemingway was just a horse's ass, Celine was truly evil."

While he had a fairly good professional career as a center fielder, he was better known for his well-publicized battle with bipolar disorder that became the subject of the movie "Fear Strikes Out." Plagued by auditory hallucinations, he once talked to Babe Ruth behind the centerfield monuments in Yankee Stadium.

The last time anyone mentioned Jacqueline Susann. Or Raymond Carver.

Orwell's "Confessions of a Book Reviewer."

Was Dorothy Parker a critic or a reviewer? In certain circles, such distinctions are important. The reviewer being, of course, somewhat lower on the literary food chain. Today, most serious writers are actually schoolteachers, plying their trade at various institutions of higher learning where they presumably teach the next generation of schoolteachers how to be serious writers.


There was a book reviewer once at the Irish Echo in New York City who earned more by taking all the books he wasn't going to review, coffee-table jobs filled with brilliantly reproduced photographs, to the Strand Book Store at Broadway and 10th and selling them than he did by actually writing reviews of the books he liked.
Only later did he learn that generations of reviewers before him had done the same thing.

Did critics do it as well? He wondered.

Wondering at what point, exactly, did writing for money make the writing itself unserious? Was it around the time most people stopped reading serious novels?

"Only a blockhead writes for anything but money," Samuel Johnson is said to have said.

David Foster Wallace, a serious writer of the reviewer's own generation, is a second-generation schoolteacher who holds the Roy E. Disney Endowed Professor of Creative Writing chair at Pomona College in California. Roy E. Disney being the son of Walt Disney, who also fathered Mickey Mouse.

Hunter S. Thompson never taught school but was sitting in an unendowed chair in his kitchen when he put the business end of a .45 Smith & Wesson automatic in his mouth and pulled the trigger. In front of the battered portable typewriter he made his living writing on.

Chasing his own tail.

"The Last Novel," by David Markson. Shoemaker & Hoard, 190 pp, paper. $15.

This is an excellent book, and you really ought to read it.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 8 2007