If David Goodis (1917-1967) is not a household name, this may be due, in part, to the kind of households he wrote about. His characters tend to live on the wrong side of the tracks, socialize on skid row, and ply such trades as burglary — if they work at all.
The grittiness of Goodis’s novels gave mainstream publishers an excuse to leave them mostly to the pulp houses, and his fiction had all but dropped out of sight when the Library of America took note of him in 1997: That year, it published a two-volume anthology of noir novels that included Goodis’s “Down There” (originally published in 1956), the basis for Francois Truffaut’s movie “Shoot the Piano Player.” Similarly, the library has billed the five unnerving novels in this new Goodis collection as “noir.” They could just as well be described as “naturalistic,” though — descendants of Stephen Crane’s “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” Frank Norris’s “McTeague,” Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and any number of novels by the father of naturalism, Emile Zola. The signature trait of such works is the conviction that humans are severely limited — perhaps even trapped — by heredity and environment.
Born in 1917 to a news dealer and his wife, Goodis grew up in a middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood and graduated from Temple University, where he majored in journalism. Despite his education, a combination of ethnicity (Jewish) and temperament allowed him to empathize with outsiders: the working poor, the unjustly accused, fugitives, criminals. (In editor Robert Polito’s chronology of Goodis’s life at the end of this new volume, the novelist is described as having lived for a while in “a Los Angeles flophouse, although he [was] apparently earning $1,000 a week.”)
The extravagantly prolific Goodis (he estimated that during one five-year period, he cranked out 5 million words) started out writing for pulp magazines and ended up begetting cheap paperbacks. In between, he had his share of success, including hardcover publication and movie sales. After his 1946 novel “Dark Passage” (included in this collection) was bought and filmed by Warner Bros. with Humphrey Bogart in the starring role, Goodis went to Hollywood, where he ultimately made $2,000 a week as a screenwriter. (That same novel, Goodis charged, was the unacknowledged basis for the 1960s TV drama “The Fugitive,” and he sued United Artists for damages. The suit ended in a settlement, but by then, Goodis was dead of a stroke at age 49.) He later moved back to Philadelphia, where he was considered a “semi-celebrity” as he wrote stories and screenplays for television.
Judged by this omnibus, Goodis is a novelist of almost hypnotic intensity, as well as a card-carrying member of the stripped-down Hemingway Style Club. Also like the early Hemingway — the Hemingway of “The Sun Also Rises” — Goodis can be quite funny, especially when writing dialogue. In “The Moon in the Gutter,” a battle axe with a mouth on her keeps her volatile stepdaughter in line by hurling such threats as, “Talk back again and I’ll slap you so hard you’ll go through the wall.” A bar floozy says of a rival, “She don’t worry me. She starts with me, she’ll need nurses night and day.”