Down There: The Trials of David Goodis

06/06/2012 4:00 AM |

David Goodis:
Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s

(Library of America)

You will not once need to turn to a dictionary while reading the prose of David Goodis, an exemplary practitioner of the fiction which, at mid-century, was commonly grouped under the rubric “hard-boiled.”

Goodis wrote in a poetic Neanderthal version of the terse, “masculine” style which has its roots in Hemingway and Hammett. Library of America’s new Goodis collection puts five of the author’s novels between hardcover; looking at the photo on the dust jacket—presumably a studio publicity shot taken during his stint as a Warner Bros. scriptwriter—one can imagine Goodis sweating through his shirtsleeves while operating his typewriter in hunt-and-peck style, punching the keys very hard.

Starting any given paragraph, Goodis tends to locate the key word representing what’s currently preoccupying his invariably driven, harried and obsessed protagonist, and then hammers on that key word over and over again, with nary a pronoun of relief. This goes on sentence after sentence, until the next key word leaps into view, and thus the next paragraph. In this manner, latching onto one key word after another, Goodis’s novels attain their lunging narrative momentum, something like the desperate hand-over-hand progress of an untethered rock climber.

Goodis was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Philadelphia, the city to which he would return after Hollywood and New York, whose dives and seamy South-side slums he repeatedly turned to for inspiration—although, in another sense, Goodis’s stories take place in no particular city, but in The City. After years of grinding out material for pulp magazines under various pseudonyms, Goodis had his break when his 1946 Dark Passage was purchased by Warner Bros. and made as a Humphrey Bogart vehicle. (In fact, each of the novels in LoA’s collection has been adapted into a film, three of them during Goodis’s lifetime, while he is perhaps best known today for providing the plot to François Truffaut’s <>Shoot the Piano Player with his Down There.)

Dark Passage follows a fugitive from San Quentin who, at large in San Francisco, begins to unravel the secret of his wife’s murder, of which he was wrongly accused, while taking up with a mysterious woman. Goodis’s novels invariably deal with men forced into the fringe by circumstance, with their faces pressed up against the glass of the normal, middle-class family life that’s unavailable to them. “There was a great deal of difference between a home and a hiding place,” sighs the protagonist of 1947’s Nightfall, also alienated by the stigma of a crime he didn’t commit.

In these early novels, Goodis holds out hope that his hunted protagonists and their hard luck dames might still buy into the all-American family franchise, but in the later works this gives way to a voluptuous fatalism: 1953’s The Burglar ends on a primordial image of surrender to the undertow. The Moon in the Gutter (also 1953) features a stevedore, tough native of the downtown tenements, whose fantasy courtship with an uptown broad ends in his reversion to class fate (Goodis would essentially re-work this theme in 1954’s The Blonde on the Street Corner). 1954’s Street of No Return’s highlight is a curtly written evocation of the slide leading to Skid Row (“From November to November. And on and on through all the gray Novembers”).

Dead at age 49 in 1967, Goodis’ story ended where it began, in Philadelphia. The record of his dark passage is these novels, one of the most lucid, solitary bodies of work in American crime fiction.