FEBRUARY 11, 2015
LITERARY OBSCURITY is a curious beast. Why do some writers get discovered and stay famous, while others, perhaps just as good, possibly even better, remain undiscovered or burn brightly for a brief period only to become completely unknown? Is it talent, perseverance, astute management, zeitgeist, or just plain luck? And the process by which forgotten writers are rediscovered can be even stranger.
The ebb and flow of literary fame is one of the undercurrents running through French-born, Los Angeles–based journalist Philippe Garnier’s biography of David Goodis, Goodis: A Life in Black and White. Published in France 30 years ago, it was only translated and published in English for the first time in 2013.
Goodis is seen as one of the preeminent noir writers of his era, the heyday of pulp publishing in the late 1940s and 1950s, and, according to Garnier, “has become a cottage industry of mind-boggling proportions in his own country.”
It wasn’t always so.
In 1947, Goodis was riding high, with a screenwriting contract with Warner Brothers and a hit movie, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on his 1946 novel of the same name. But within a couple of years he had returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, moved back in with his parents and mentally ill brother, and spent the next two decades churning out pulp novels. When Goodis died in 1967, he had been almost completely forgotten in his home country and none of his 18 novels were in print in the US.
Why did Goodis toss away the prospect of mainstream success in favor of the relative obscurity of life as a pulp writer? Was it life-as-art in the sense that Goodis chose to emulate the fate of the lowlife characters and desperate losers who populated his novels? Did he have a keen sense of his core market, and decide to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else, becoming marginalized as pulp publishing started to fade? Or, were deeper, more complex motivations and forces at play?
Complicating the picture of Goodis’s career was the fact his work had a separate life in France, where literary elites and public library readers alike devoured his existentially bleak worldview. Goodis, along with writers such as Cain and Chandler, was part of the great dump of US culture on France in the late 1940s, years of literature, film, and music that France had missed during World War II.
The melancholy tone of noir fiction, characters bereft of dignity and loosened from their moral bearings, was a natural fit for a nation traumatized by the Nazi occupation and the reactions of different parts of French society to it. Série noire, the paperback imprint of the prestigious Éditions Gallimard, published a number of Goodis’s books. His novels also served as the basis for several French films, the most prominent being François Truffaut’s 1960 movie Shoot the Piano Player, based on the 1946 book Down There, and starring Charles Aznavour.
Goodis started his career in the late 1930s writing sports, aviation, horror, and western stories under a variety of pseudonyms for pulp magazines. He made a decent living, typing as many as 3,000 to 5,000 words a day, at a cent a word. He branched out into the far more lucrative slicks, higher-quality publications such as Collier’s and The American Magazine, and also wrote radio serials.
He moved to Hollywood in 1942 and signed a six-year contract with Warner Brothers. He worked on various treatments and scripts, many of which never saw the light of day, until he hit pay dirt with the screen adaptation of Dark Passage. He continued to work in Hollywood until 1950 when he returned to Philadelphia and the world of the pulp hack, working for Gold Medal and, what Garnier refers to as “the skid row” of pulp publishers, Lion Books.
Garnier doesn’t feel the need to be a literary cheerleading squad for Goodis. The truth, as Garnier sees it, is that while some of his work was very good (Dark Passage in 1946, Cassidy’s Girl in 1951, Black Friday in 1954), many of his books were lazy, pedestrian, and lightweight. Style was never Goodis’s strong point, pace and the obsessive emotional drive he brought to his books were. Garnier quotes Geoffrey O’Brien, author of the 1981 book Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks, that it is the:
sense of impending internal catastrophe that distinguishes his books. We don’t read them for style, not for what they tell us about the tougher neighborhoods of Philadelphia that Goodis grew up in, but rather for a steady and undeniable emotional drive that sometimes handles language with something like hysteria.
The book is largely unsuccessful in answering the central mystery of Goodis’s life, why he threw away a promising career. But the journey Garnier takes us on is so fascinating, the cast of characters he has assembled to accompany us so interesting, and he is such an entertaining guide, the book feels none the worse for it. Goodis: A Life in Black and White reads like the script of a no-holds-barred jailbreak from a B-noir. Garnier romanticizes nothing and takes no prisoners.
Garnier researched his book in the early 1980s, before the rise of the internet made information about even the most marginal cult author available at the tap of a couple of computer keys. His research methods therefore are old school: cold-calling every possible contact, and hitting the pavement to ferret people out and talk to them. He tracks down and interviews the writer’s acquaintances, friends, former colleagues, and employers. Their insights are partial and contradictory. They reveal a deeply conflicted individual who kept many secrets and led strange, multiple lives. They also provide a wealth of entertaining gossip and anecdotes. There is Goodis’s mysterious and short-lived marriage in California, his penchant for slumming it in the seedier parts of whatever town he lived in, his sexual obsession with large African American women, and his “research trips” to the black parts of Philadelphia — “going to the Congo,” he sometimes called it. Even at the height of his success in the late 1940s, he eschewed Hollywood parties in favor of hanging out in greasy spoon cafes and seedy bars. He was also a notorious penny-pincher who wore the same suit until it was on the verge of falling to pieces and chose to rent a sofa in a friend’s place in Hollywood for 10 dollars a week rather than pay for a hotel.
The prose Garnier uses to describe these encounters crackles with a hard-boiled energy. For example, his initial meeting with the man Goodis rented the sofa from while he worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood:
Seated at the empty counter, Norkin looked like a stool pigeon in a Sam Fuller movie: waxy yellow complexion, sweaty, with white chalky stuff sticking to the corner of his lips. And just like a station house fink, he wanted to get paid for his information. He started talking only after his wife had counted out the ten $20s the assistant handed her, and signed a receipt, but Norkin sure gave good value.
Garnier notes that while the French loved to take credit for their early recognition of genre writers like Goodis, they did so largely from a position of ignorance. Série noire published Goodis in poorly translated, bowdlerized editions. The French were content with the illusion of Goodis and:
would have been, in the 1950s and ’60s, stunned to realize that Goodis and his ilk wrote for truck drivers and lonely salesmen, that these types of paperbacks were not so far removed from stroke magazines. When I first came to America in the early 1970s, I found most of my Goodis paperbacks being sold in bunches of three, wrapped in cellophane, in sex shops along 42nd Street. This was the market, and has always been.
Garnier debunks the so-called nobility of the life of the pulp writer, and Hollywood gets the same treatment, as Garnier sifts through studio correspondence to reveal how the artistic aspects of filmmaking came second to penny pinching, management backstabbing, and corporate power plays:
There is nothing like spending a few weeks perusing the files of Warner Bros. Archives to gain a true idea of how a studio worked — or to once and for all shoot down in flames what is left of the auteur theory […] You learn so much about how films are actually made, that it renders laughable the far-fetched and often pompous theories worked up about them by French intellectuals.
As for the much-vaunted realism of the streets that many people have read into Goodis’s work:
The depiction of gutter life in his ’50s novels is not more realistic than the rendition of the lush life and middle-class existence was in his earlier books — which always read as if the details were mail-ordered from catalogues. For Goodis and his characters, Skid Row is not merely the end of the line, it is also an imaginary land, a fantasy land, the hell they have elected to fall into.
As academic Susan Stryker put it in the introduction to Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (2001), pulp novels, which have only recently begun to be viewed as a kind of ersatz art, were peepholes that gave “stolen glimpses into exotic interior territories.” Pulp was a manifestation of mainstream society’s subconscious and not-so-subconscious fears, obsessions, and desires, which is why it sold so well.
No doubt Goodis understood this. In a strange way, he has subsequently become an authorial embodiment of that territory. All that is really left at the conclusion of Goodis: A Life in Black and White are unanswered questions and more mysteries. Which is how, one suspects, Goodis would have liked it.