The “mystery man of American hardboiled fiction” gets the canonical treatment from the Library of America. How good are the books?
Not five pages into Dark Passage (1946), the first of the five noir novels gathered in the Library of America’s new David Goodis collection, the reader realizes that the book just getting underway won’t be any ordinary genre exercise.
Parry, the fall guy who’s been handed a life sentence in San Quentin for a murder he didn’t commit, is brooding in his cell when he first hatches an escape plan. He sits there working the scheme out in his head, filling in detail upon detail, trying to anticipate every contingency — and then, in a bold show of authorial sleight-of-hand, he’s actually carrying out the plan, stashed in a truck leaving the prison grounds, having made the jump from conception to execution in the space of a paragraph.
It’s a seamless transition — and a sign that Goodis isn’t going to be interested in the things a more traditional crime-suspense practitioner would spend time, and valuable pages, on (like the minute-to-minute logistics of a successful jailbreak, for instance). With this author, you soon understand, strict realism weighs less than atmosphere, an atmosphere that will be compounded of equal parts dread, lyricism, and, particularly in the later books, barroom fumes that waft off the page so powerfully they practically make your eyes water. You’ll find a lot of the stock elements of hardboiled fiction in these stories (hoodlums, dames, cops), but it becomes more and more clear in each one that Goodis’s real subject is his characters’ attempts to hold darkness — the world’s, their own — at bay.
With its vivid rendering of the escaped convict’s near-total paranoia, set against an equally acute depiction of wartime San Francisco, Dark Passage gets the LOA anthology off to a roaring start. It’s a standard that isn’t quite met by the second book in the collection, 1947′s Nightfall, in which a New York freelance artist accidentally implicated in a violent stickup has to outwit both the police and the gang who pulled off the robbery.
It may be relevant to mention here that within a year of its publication Dark Passage was made into a Hollywood movie starring no less a duo than Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; its success also led to Goodis’s winning a cushy screenwriting contract from Warner Brothers. I couldn’t help wondering if the studio spell doesn’t account for some of what’s wrong about Nightfall — the further you read, and particularly by the time you get to the relatively anodyne ending, the more the book unfolds like the kind of 70-minute B&W quickie that these days turns up late at night on Turner Classic Movies.
But with The Burglar (1953), we’re in a different world entirely. Significantly, this is the first novel in the LOA collection written after Goodis had left Hollywood to return full-time to his native Philadelphia, where he would remain until his death in 1967; it and the two novels that follow also came into the world as paperback originals, the publishing ghetto of supposedly disposable pulp that, paradoxically, seems to have freed Goodis to become himself. The three Philadelphia novels (they’re also set there) in the new volume may lack a certain sprightliness that kept the prose in Dark Passage humming, but they more than compensate for it by making Goodis’s most distinctive traits — his fascination with tortured psychology, his ability to create a sense of impending doom — the main story.
The burglar of the title is Harbin, an expert B & E man and the leader of a low-level gang of Philadelphia thieves. After a heist at a Main Line mansion doesn’t go as planned, the subsequent recriminations among the gang send Harbin out on the lam, in an odyssey that takes him to the Pennsylvania countryside and back to Philly before it reaches a stunningly dark conclusion in Atlantic City.
But a plot summary can’t convey what a hypnotic mood piece Goodis conjures out of his cops-and-robbers material. Critical to its success is a kind of formal patterning that lingers in memory well after you’ve forgotten the particulars of who double-crosses whom. The blond hero is twinned and shadowed by a mysterious, equally blond psychopath who moves at will between both sides of the law — sometimes he’s a cop, sometime he’s not — and oscillating between the two men, meanwhile, are a pair of dangerous and (of course) alluring women, one of whom might be Harbin’s salvation if the other doesn’t ruin him first. Dubious coincidences and extravagant twists are a part of this territory, admittedly, but the whole thing comes across with such crazy conviction that even the most implausible moments start to seem essential to the overall hallucinatory texture.
Goodis only ratchets up the intensity in the next two books. Both The Moon in the Gutter (1953) and Street of No Return (1954) are set in stretches of working-class, waterfront Philly that were lost decades ago to urban renewal and to I-95, and their protagonists are men who have touched bottom and decided they like it there. The titles give some clue as to what you can expect, but only a clue: knowing Goodis largely by reputation, I wasn’t prepared for what raw, nihilistic gusts come out of these pages, abject refusals of all the promises held out, then as now, by the “good society.” It’s customary to allude to the lower depths when characterizing Goodis’s Skid Row milieu, but the phrase hardly seems adequate. Lower depths? These people are hundreds of feet underwater. (And if these novels still have the power to shock today, it’s fascinating to imagine how they were received — or not — almost 60 years ago, back in the heyday of Levittown and Henry Luce.)
Two sequences in Street of No Return deserve special mention. First is the long flashback scene at the train station where Whitey, the novel’s alcoholic lead, first encounters the thug who’s going to destroy him, a set piece so masterful that I found myself studying it line-by-line to see what I could learn from it. Second is a savage depiction of tensions between whites and Puerto Ricans that erupts into a full-blown race riot: Ten years before most Americans began to realize what seething cauldrons their inner cities had turned into, Goodis was getting the urban inferno into print. (As a Jew, he may have been especially attuned to these kinds of tensions: as early as Dark Passage, for instance, we get a fascinating scene centered on a minor character’s anti-Semitic outburst.)
On the other hand, neither book lives up to the promise of its sensational early pages. The ending of The Moon in the Gutter feels like an evasion: I was prepared for a more disturbing revelation about the exact nature of the dockworker hero’s relationship with his late sister, and the fetish he makes of her “purity.”
More seriously, Street of No Return devolves into a long, masochistic wallow. Rough stuff is central to the Goodis oeuvre — “Tell me or I’ll shoot you above the knee. I’ll keep on shooting until I tear your leg off,” snarls one heavy in Dark Passage, and a nightmarish shootout with the police is a highlight of The Burglar — but in the second half of this book beatings, shootings, stabbings, and more beatings follow on one another with such numbing regularity that you feel your suspension of disbelief being pummeled into hamburger along with several of the supporting characters. Plus, the race riot turns out to be something less than it initially seemed — an especially regrettable lapse into genre contrivance, as though the author had been ordered by his publisher to veer back onto the straight and narrow.
But these are quibbles. Since music of all kinds (pop, jazz, classical) features prominently in several Goodis novels (and indeed serves as a kind of saving grace for many of his protagonists), it may be most apt to regard The Moon in the Gutter and Street of No Return as the pulp equivalent of tone poems, and their shortcomings as a sign that by this point in his career Goodis’s chosen form wasn’t always in sync with his artistic ambitions— however consciously acknowledged those ambitions are.
(Happily, the author would regain his footing two years later with one of his best books, 1956’s Down There, reprinted in a separate, earlier Library of America crime fiction anthology and popularized by Francois Truffaut as his film Shoot the Piano Player.)
In the age of Google, we like to flatter ourselves that nothing stays hidden for long, that the culture has few secrets left to give up when the most obscure cult author can have his own Wikipedia page. Yet here in his native country Goodis has hovered on the edge of visibility — now you see him, now you don’t — in the nearly five decades since his death. It’s sobering to realize that until its latest resurrection a corrosive little classic like The Burglar (whose DNA lives on in countless movies, from Michael Mann’s Thief in 1981 to 2011’s Drive) was allowed to languish out of print for nearly 20 years.
That begs the question, naturally, of whether someone will come to the rescue of Black Friday, Cassidy’s Girl, and some of the other Goodis titles that currently seem to be MIA. But for now, the Library of America has done a valuable service with its compact, bricklike new volume, which even features a dust jacket photo of the author hunched over his typewriter, tie askew, surrounded by manuscript pages — looking suitably noirish, in other words.
— Jeff Tompkins
January 4, 2013
The website davidgoodis.com is highly recommended for anyone wishing to learn more about the life and work of this elusive author.