David Goodis’s ‘Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s’: Dark tales of losers

May 24, 2012

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.”

“Moon in the Gutter” showcases the naturalistic strain in Goodis’s fiction. The humbly born protagonist, William Kerrigan, resists what is shaping up as a rapturous love affair because he believes that too wide a gap separates him from Loretta, the middle-class beauty who adores him. Like McTeague or the railroad workers of Zola’s “La bete humaine,” Kerrigan feels as if he’s sentenced to a lifetime of limited prospects, except that the judge meting out the punishment is Kerrigan himself. So complex is Goodis’s portrait of the man in his milieu that the reader has a hard time deciding whether Kerrigan’s inclination to spurn Loretta reflects wisdom or masochism.

These novels lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from the cozy mystery subgenre. Yet the violence to which Goodis subjects his characters is never gratuitous. In the most painful of them all, “Street of No Return,” a famous crooner forfeits his meal ticket — his golden voice — to a pair of thugs working him over at the behest of the common-law husband the singer has cuckolded. It’s within the victim’s power to stop the beating — all he has to do is promise never to see his inamorata again — but he refuses to lie. His name is Whitey (after the beating, his hair turns white overnight), and he is a prototypical noir hero: a man who maintains his integrity against people to whom the word means nothing — and pays a terrible price. For the record, the other two novels in the collection are “Nightfall” and “The Burglar.” The latter is memorable for treating burglary as a profession, breaking down its practice into what almost amounts to a flow chart.

As one who can hardly bring himself to watch football anymore (given what we have learned about the sport’s tendency to produce severe and lasting head injuries), I find myself in the odd position of recommending this handful of harrowing novels. In them, Goodis shows that it’s possible to write brilliantly about desperate losers in hopeless neighborhoods and that a true artist can handle virtually any subject with class.

Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.

david goodis

Five Noir Novels of the 1940s
& 50s

By David Goodis

Library of America. 804 pp. $35

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