I first read David Goodis in the two-volume Library of America set of 11 noir novels written from the 1930's -- 1950's. The second volume of the set included Goodis' 1956 novel, "Down There" which because the basis of Francois Truffaut's 1960 film, "Shoot the Piano Player". I needed to know more of Goodis. Fortunately, the Library of America had recently published this volume devoted entirely to Goodis and including five novels he wrote in the 1940's and 1950's. Robert Polito, a noted scholar of noir who prepared the earlier LOA volumes, edited this volume of Goodis' novels. I have read and reviewed each of the five novels individually with links provided at the end of this review. It has been a long time since I have been so taken with the works of a writer new to me.
An enigmatic person and writer, Goodis (1917 -- 1967) was born in Philadelphia to middle-class Jewish parents and graduated from Temple University. He published his first novel at the age of 22 and spent several years producing a large quantity of words for pulp magazines and learning the craft of a writer. In the mid 1940's, Goodis moved to Hollywood, had a short unhappy marriage, and wrote further novels. Then, in 1950 he returned to Philadelphia where he lived with his parents and did the remainder of his writing. The novels he wrote in Hollywood were published in hardcover while the many novels he wrote in Philadelphia were published in cheap paperback editions with lurid covers and were probably deemed to have no lasting value. Goodis did most of his writing between 1951-- 1961. In 1966, Goodis was mugged, and he died the following year with no surviving family.
The background in pulp magazines and in screenwriting is apparent throughout this volume of Goodis' writings. Each of these books has its share of raw violence, fighting, murders, and robberies. Goodis seems to write with the screen not far from mind, as each of the five books in this volume became a noir movie (four in the United States and one in France.) But it would be a mistake to think that the background in pulp, cheap fiction, and Hollywood gives an adequate portrayal of Goodis.
The author has acquired the nickname of "poet of the losers" (A loosely similar writer, Charles Bukowski has acquired the nickname "poet of Skid Row")and it is deserved. Crime, and plot, are at best secondary elements in Goodis' writings. The novels are largely internalized and introspective. Goodis writes about lonely failures, people who are isolated and who seem never to receive a break in life. Several of the books center on a character who is falsely accused of a crime. The characters in his book have little, and they tend to be searching for love and for other forms of human connection. In these novels, love happens to the characters in a moment. It tends to be irresitable and to drive the protagonists forever after. The passions are lasting but they seldom if ever end well. Goodis' books each include many characters for short novels. The protagonists and the secondary characters are sharply drawn, and they tend to illustrate many sides of a single pessimistic view of the human condition.
Besides emphasizing lonely and lost people, Goodis' novels display a strong sense of atmosphere and place. Goodis writes in the short hard-boiled sentences of noir fiction, but the writing is rhythmic and lyrical, with a painter's eye for detail. Of the works in this volume, one novel is set in San Francisco, one primarily in New York City and three in Philadelphia. In each book, he captures a sense of the streets, neighborhoods, bars, alleys, and people that is readily identifiable to the place and not readily transferable. There are also scenes of cold lonely nights, endless walking on city streets, lonely city rooms, busy crowded but empty streets that Goodis finds characteristic of modern urban life.
The first two novels in this volume, "Dark Passage" and "Nightfall" date from the 1940's. They tend to be slightly more optimistic than the novels written in Philadelphia. "Dark Passage" tells the story of a relatively ordinary man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife who subsequently escapes from San Quentin and has an operation on his face to avoid detection and capture. The primary character, Vincent Parry, never loses his determination to better his condition.
"Nightfall" was Goodis' most successful book during his lifetime. It tells the story of a commercial artist and WW II veteran who through circumstance is wrongly suspected of participating in a bank robbery and of hiding the $300,000 heist. In a story told from at least three different perspectives, the protagonist Jim Vanning struggles to clear himself and to find a home and a woman to love.
The three subsequent novels in this volume date from Goodis' years in Philadelphia and are much darker and pessimistic in tone than the two prior works. "The Burglar" is an exploration of love and loyalty. When the main character, Nat Harbin, falls for a femme fatale named Della, the cohesiveness of the gang of thieves which he heads is severely tested. Harbin must weigh his infatuation against the good of the family group and against his relationship to a young woman, Gladden.
My favorite novel in this collecion was "The Moon in the Gutter", set in a hopelessly unredeemable Philadelphia slum. The novel portrays Philadelphia low life as well as the city's docks and wharves. The novel conveys a sense of sadness and loneliness, and of failed love across social divisions. The main character, William Kerrigan, engages in a search for a man who had violated his younger sister, leading to her suicide.
The final novel, "Street of No Return" portrays two different Philadelphia neighborhoods: the Skid Row and an adjacent community called Helltown which is experiencing violence and racial conflict. The book explores the character of Eugene Lindell, who has lost the chance of a successful career as a popular singer through his love of a woman with criminal connections and who has become a lonely alcoholic drifting through Skid Row.
Goodis' books are much more sad, poetical reflections on lonely lives and places than formulaic noir stories of violence. American experience and American literature are broad enough for many kinds of writing. I was moved greatly in my discovery of this author. Goodis' works deserve a place in the Library of America, which chronicles the breadth and diversity of America and its people.
Here are links to the individual volumes in this collection for interested readers.
Dark Passage (Film Ink Series)
The Dark Chase aka Nightfall
The Burglar (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
The Moon in the Gutter (Midnight Classics)
Street of No Return