Down There with David Goodis
About once a year I discover a writer whose work intrigues me sufficiently that I allow myself to become obsessed with their lives and work. Most of these have tended to be American crime or country noir authors. In 2009-10 that writer was Harry Crews. In 2012 it was two authors, Megan Abbott and William Gay. Two again in 2013 with Derek Raymond and Daniel Woodrell. In 2014 it was a Russian, Mikhail Bulgakov. In 2015 I discovered Jim Thompson and in 2016 I read almost everything by James Sallis. Though the year is young, 2017 is shaping up as the year of David Goodis.
In the case of many of these writers, such as Thompson, Raymond and Goodis, their status nowadays is that of ‘long forgotten, recently rediscovered cult crime author’. All three were relatively successful in their time, all three had plenty of movies adapted from their novels, all fell from favour after their deaths only for their work to be resurrected decades later. Goodis’ personal life story seems especially poignant and I won’t try to summarise it here, but suffice to say that his fall from grace during his lifetime was the steepest of the three. A successful author and Hollywood screenwriter by the age of 30 (pictured below with Bogart and Bacall, stars of the 1947 noir film Dark Passage, adapted from Goodis’ novel of the same name), a decade later he was churning out cheap paperback originals for the same pulp houses as Jim Thompson. A decade after that, at 49, Goodis was dead.
Goodis is by no means the perfect writer. Having read four of his novels now, I feel safe in saying that. His plots creak and often threaten to bust at the seams. He is overly reliant on coincidence and often having a character overhear long sections of dialogue. His protagonists are almost always the exact same kind of morose down-and-out. Goodis often uses lengthy expository passages and pages and pages of interior monologue (this last point is both strength and weakness).
And yet Goodis has heart. This, above anything else, is his greatest strength as a writer. He demonstrates care not only for his suicidal protagonists, but for those practically all of those downtrodden souls who inhabit his books. Goodis uses flashback sections effectively to explain the plights of his protagonists and also to link prior action to that happening now. He writes action scenes and especially punch-ups particularly effectively. He demonstrates an admirable attitude toward women and ethnic minorities, and writes largely without racial prejudice. Goodis describes settings in atmospheric fashion, often using the weather itself as a character in his work. In short, he’s a diamond in the rough.
To the novels themselves, I began with Shoot the Piano Player, renamed thus from Down There after the French film upon which it is based. I liked this plenty, especially the frozen setting of deep winter in Philadelphia. Goodis’ most obvious attribute as a writer is that he genuinely writes about the down-and-outs of society, and these pages are filled with them. I also really dig the early 90s Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition pictured here (I have several Jim Thompson novels in these editions). Under its original title, the novel is also available in a Library of America edition of 50s noir.
Far less successful in my view is The Wounded and the Slain, available from Hard Case Crime. This one is probably unique in Goodis’ ouevre in that it’s set outside the U.S., in Jamaica (which Goodis apparently visited). I didn’t much care for the sunny setting but what especially galled me here was the extremely poor plotting. I thought the writing and characters reasonable enough, but the plotting to be on the level one might expect from a small child. Others apparently disagree.
2012 must have been a watershed year for Goodis’ fans, as this signalled the release of Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s from the Library of America, an edition I’ve recently obtained. In fact, many of the novels herein are only in print in this edition. So far I’ve only read The Burglar and Street of No Return, meaning I still have Dark Passage, Nightfall and The Moon in the Gutter to come. Quite brief at 52,000 words, The Burglar is a sharp noir tale set in Philly and Atlantic City in the 50s. All the main characters are well drawn, the protagonist’s manias are convincing and there aren’t too many dumb things in the plot. I enjoyed the hell out of this, basically.
Street of No Return reads like an inferior Shoot the Piano Player, however. There our protagonist previously had a glittering career playing the piano, whereas here he was a singer, but otherwise the setup is much the same. One of the problems with this is clunky plotting. Here there are three separate groups: cops, white crims and Puerto Rican crims, all vying for control of the Hellhole in central Philly, but Goodis doesn’t seem to have the necessary skill to pit them against each other convincingly. Another problem is that here the femme fatale barely appears on the page at all, other than in a flashback chapter (Chapter 6 – by my reckoning the best in the book).
I’m waiting for the arrival of Black Friday and Selected Stories not only for the title novella but also for the stories, many of which were written in the 30s and 40s. There’s also an essay by Adrian Wootton on Goodis that I’m keen to read. I’ve also managed to find an old paperback of Cassidy’s Girl on Ebay for a reasonable price, which brings me up to nine novels of the eighteen Goodis published owned. The others are all available secondhand, but are usually very expensive. I have my eye on copies of In Tender Sin, The Blonde on the Street Corner and Night Squad as all three were at least reprinted at some point in the nineties. The other six appear not to have been reprinted for many years. All are available, but none cheaply.
Those like me attempting to absorb anything Goodis related as quickly and as cheaply as possible have their work cut out for them, unfortunately. There’s a 2010 documentary that I’ve just ordered on Ebay (the DVD seems to have recently gone out of print on Amazon). There’s even a biography written in French in the eighties that was only published in English in recent years (Goodis: A Life in Black and White), but this can only be obtained direct from the publisher at a hefty cost of $65 including shipping for us poor Aussies. There’s even a short book by James Sallis (Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson – David Goodis – Chester Himes) but it’s out of print and prohibitively expensive secondhand. Online, there’s a wealth of (not very clearly organised) material on davidgoodis.com, and there’s the occasional excellent review by the likes of Australian author Andrew Nette.
As for finding copies of Goodis’ novels cheaply secondhand, it seems that the French have been the real curators of his legacy over the years. The downside to this is that most of the cheap editions of Goodis’ novels on Ebay are in French translation and thus of little use to me. I’ve just ordered a DVD of the 1947 film version of Dark Passage and no doubt the other adaptions are available in some way and for some price, but that will have to do me for now.
Off I go, back down there into The Moon in the Gutter.