Out of the Gutter

By John McIntyreJuly 1, 2012

    Out of the Gutter

    David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s by David Goodis. Library of America. 848 pages.

    He walked slowly along Wharf, came onto Vernon Street, then walked west on Vernon toward home. The slimy water in the gutter was lit with pink fire from the evening sun, and he looked up and saw it big and very red up there, the flares shooting out from the blazing sphere, merging with the orange clouds, so that the sky was like a huge opal, the glowing colors floating and blending, and it was really something to look at. He thought, It's tremendous. And he wondered if anyone else was looking up at it right now and thinking the same thing.

    But as his gaze returned to the street he saw the dirty-faced kids playing in the gutter, he saw a drunk sprawled on a doorstep, and three middle-aged men sitting on the curb and drinking wine from a bottle wrapped in old newspaper.

    — The Moon in the Gutter (1953)

    WHEN DAVID GOODIS DIED in January 1967, he was forty-nine years old and a decade past his best work. He hadn't published a book since 1961. Goodis was a popular novelist, and without new titles to keep his name on readers’ minds, he was doomed to return to obscurity. His final novel, Somebody’s Done For, was published months after his death, but he didn’t leave a substantial backlog of work to sustain his reputation. His estate won an appeal in a lawsuit against the producers of The Fugitive television series in 1972, claiming the premise was stolen from Goodis’s novel Dark Passage (1946), but by that time he was practically a relic. Perhaps Goodis’s legacy suffered most for lack of a single, truly iconic character one could identify with his work. His protagonists are nearer Simenon's Monsieur Hire than Hammett's Sam Spade.

    Yet there was a time — roughly from 1947 to 1957 — when Goodis enjoyed a wide following among readers of American noir fiction and, whether they realized it or not, American moviegoers. Dark Passage, his second novel, was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1945 and appeared as a film two years later, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Another novel, Cassidy’s Girl, sold a million copies in its original paperback release. He published fourteen novels in that span of ten years, a steady output but nothing unheard of in the annals of pulp writers.

    Goodis did a stint in Hollywood, signing a contract with Warner Brothers for one year, with five renewal options, on the heels of a $25,000 payday for the rights to Dark Passage. He cashed in again by working on the script adaptation of the book. He also wrote the screenplay based on Somerset Maugham’s story “The Unfaithful,” and was rewarded handsomely for his studio work on the whole. His starting salary was $750 per week, a tidy sum for 1946, and it climbed steadily. His contract with Warner Brothers was eminently fair: it stipulated six months of film work and six months during which he could return to Philadelphia and write fiction. Despite these generous terms, Goodis never settled into the Hollywood lifestyle. He opted to sleep on friends’ sofas and in LA flophouses like the Crown Hill Hotel. There was a period when he took an apartment in the fashionable Hollywood Tower Apartments, but this was an aberration. His friends from Philadelphia remember his studied avoidance of the film industry's glamor. He refused to attend parties and preferred to dine in hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

    In the end, his writing for the screen wasn't a great success. Warner Brothers requested eleven treatments for Of Missing Persons in 1948 alone. They later granted Goodis permission to publish the story as a novel, but it's easy to see the difference in the two sides' visions. Though there is a crime at the heart of many Goodis novels, that crime is more a catalyst for the protagonist’s spiralling hardships than a mystery to unravel. The studio seems to have worried that the Goodis model wouldn't translate to box office success, despite their interest in Dark Passage. That judgment appears dubious, considering the number of films based on Goodis's work released after he and the studio parted ways. But by 1950, he was either disillusioned with writing for the screen or had fallen out of favor at Warner Brothers. Accounts vary.

    He moved back to Philly in 1950, and lived out his final seventeen years in his parents’ house. His work in those years appeared as paperback originals, mostly from Gold Medal, a measure which no doubt ensured a wider readership. But Goodis’s public profile diminished radically after 1957. He was more respected as a literary figure in France than the United States. The only book-length biography of the author is Phillipe Garnier’s Goodis, la vie en noir et blanc (1984), and the French remained devoted Goodis readers long after his books went out of print in America. Francois Truffaut adapted Down There (1956) as Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) in 1960, but even this show of international esteem didn’t prompt a new wave of admiration at home. Goodis’s downward trajectory was steep and inexorable. His mother's death in 1966 didn't help matters. It was a serious blow to Goodis, who briefly committed himself to the Philadelphia Psychiatric Center. His physical health was failing, too. He told his family he suffered from a heart condition, and the aftermath of a mugging around that time left one of his eyes incurably bloodshot. He died less than a year later, of a cerebral vascular incident.

    Readers quickly forgot Goodis and what had drawn them to him in the first place. There were his uniquely riveting depictions of grim, hard post-war Philadelphia in books like Nightfall (1947). And then there was his mordant wit. Take his beautifully turned observation in Street of No Return (1954), when Whitey, a crooner-cum-Skid Row bum, needs to scrounge up some change for a drink. Goodis recounts Whitey’s excesses during his fall from the heights, the awful drinking jags and huge gambling losses. When he reaches bottom, all he needs is a bed and wine. “Twenty nine cents for a bottle of muscatel,” Goodis writes, summing up the man's tastes and means. “It was the outstanding value in the universe.” And no one could hit that note of stark fatalism like Goodis, as when Whitey thinks of running into a particular prostitute: “It would be like a meeting of two mongrels in the street, no preliminaries necessary... Yet somehow it was ecstasy, a sort of rummage-sale brand, but ecstasy nonetheless.”

    At other times, though, Goodis missed his mark badly. His style was often inelegant. He presented needlessly thorough lists of actions and mundane details in novels short of two-hundred pages. Consider a scene in Nightfall, when police detective Fraser comes home to his wife:

    In the kitchen he sat down at a small white table and she began preparing a salad. It looked good to her and she added things to make it enough for two. There was a pitcher of lemonade and she put more ice and sugar and water in it and sat down at the table with him. She watched him as he tackled the salad. He looked up and smiled at her. She smiled back. She poured some lemonade for him and as he lifted a forkful of lettuce and hard-boiled egg toward his mouth, she said, “Didn't you have dinner?”

    Given the particulars of Goodis's biography — especially his difficulties in married life — the tenor of the scene gains a kind of poignancy. Vanning doesn't enjoy anything similar, nor did Goodis, at least not on a regular basis. There's probably an argument that this lack informs the awkwardness here, that, odd as it sounds, the mundane contentment Fraser enjoys was more difficult for Goodis to render than the frantic calculations of a man on the run.

    Worse are his celebrated “silent dialogue” in Dark Passage, which reads like a silly gimmick. Here’s Vincent Parry’s conversation with his friend George Fellsinger, whose body he has just discovered:

    Without sound, Parry said, “Hello, George.”

    Without sound, Fellsinger said, “Hello, Vince.”

    “Are you dead, George?”

    “Yes, I'm dead.”

    “Why are you dead, George?”

    “I can't tell you, Vince. I wish I could tell you, but I can't.”


    “George, you were my best friend. You were always a real friend.”

    “You were my only friend, Vince. My only friend.”

    “I know that, George. And I know I didn't kill you. I know it I know it I know it I know it I know it.”

    None of this is to say that Goodis deserved to be cast off of readers' shelves. The accumulation of mundane details eventually weaves a spell, hypnotizing the reader. The silent dialogue is not so egregious or frequent that it robs the narrative of its exhilarating momentum (another Goodis hallmark). His work continued to attract a small, discerning coterie of readers. Fortunately, that group included publishers willing to bring Goodis back into print.  

    The first Goodis revival in the U.S. came in the 1980s, courtesy of Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard press. His books have been in and out of print since, though a moment of serious recognition came when the Library of America included Down There in its two volume set of crime fiction classics in 1997, alongside titles by Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford. A decade and a half later, the Library has finally devoted an entire volume to Goodis, collecting five of his finest from the forties and fifties: Dark Passage, Nightfall, The Burglar (1953), The Moon in the Gutter, and Street of No Return. This is Goodis in full cry, elegizing his wrongly accused and hopelessly addled misfits. His induction into the Library is not only an acknowledgement of his importance among the noir writers of his day, but a long-delayed recognition of his place in the broader American canon.

    Critical responses to Goodis since his death often devote a disproportionate amount of attention to the particulars of his life. His biography is tantalizingly imprecise. What we do know is tailor-made for speculative connections between the writer’s life and work. His relationship with and marriage to a woman named Elaine was grounds for much conjecture, including the notion that her mistreatment of Goodis served as a template for the heartless, manipulative female characters he often employed. The relationship gets a thorough sounding in the 2010 documentary, David Goodis: To a Pulp. While living in Hollywood, he behaved in a peculiar fashion, dressing in a tattered bathrobe and claiming to be an exiled Russian prince, or stuffing the red cellophane wrapping from Lucky Strike cigarette packs in his nostrils in order to give the impression that his nose was bleeding. He sewed false tags in his suits and wore them until they were threadbare. Rather than replacing them, he would dye them another shade. For entertainment, he spent evenings out in Watts, where he’s rumored to have paid large black women to assault him verbally and perhaps physically, a proclivity he may have indulged in Philadelphia as well. Most confounding was his decision to retreat from Hollywood not simply to regroup, but to live at home with his parents and disabled brother, when he clearly had the means and ability to carve out a more independent existence. None of this makes his novels more or less worthy of our attention, but it does risk stealing attention from what is, on balance, a significant body of work.

    All the more reason to applaud one of the most striking features of the new Library of America edition — editor Robert Polito’s decision to forego a prefatory essay. Polito sets aside whatever scandal and curiosity attended Goodis’s life, allowing the novels to stand on their own. And they stand up well. Goodis’s work is the product of a singular vision, and though it may be flawed and sometimes clumsily executed, its distinctive sensibility makes a far stronger impression than its shortcomings. The first title is Dark Passage. Goodis buttonholes the reader from its opening lines:

    It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to live a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.

    Add a few, deft brushstrokes, and we have an effective portrait of the quintessential Goodis protagonist:

    He didn't look as if he could handle trouble. He was five seven and a hundred and forty-five, and it was the kind of build made for clerking in an investment house. Then there was drab light-brown hair and drab dark-yellow eyes. The lips were the kind of lips not made for smiling. There was usually a cigarette between the lips. Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man.

    Like all of Goodis’s accused men, Parry insists upon his innocence, but faces insurmountable suspicion. He escapes from prison, beats up the man who offers him a ride, and falls in with an attractive young woman named Irene, who offers to buy him clothes and let him hide in her apartment. Irene’s motives seem dubious, and Parry is desperate to get away on his own, but, gradually, circumstances force him to trust her. James Sallis, whose Difficult Lives remains the best English-language source on the author’s life, calls Goodis's plots “closed circuits,” and indeed there is a sense that, try as they might, his protagonists are relegated to a small, proscribed range of possibilities. He also suggests that, “the more one reads Goodis's books [...] the more insistent is the hint of something beyond simple preoccupation or reprisal, something like real madness.” A sunnier view might invoke Vladimir Nabokov's response to Clarence Brown, who considered the master’s work to be “extremely repetitious”: “Artistic originality,” Nabokov countered, “has only its own self to copy.” Whether we ascribe it to madness, genius, or some measure of both, Goodis’s novels run on the oppressive atmosphere he mastered, and his particular fixations recur with striking intensity.

    Street of No Return, for instance, chases up thoughts of Tom Kromer's Depression-era portrait of life on the skids, Waiting for Nothing (1935). Goodis writes of

    all the gray Novembers of getting up early to distribute circulars door to door. It had to be that kind of job. It didn't take much thinking. It paid two dollars a day, and sometimes three dollars when the weather was bad and the pavements were icy. On some mornings the sign was out, 'No Work Today' and if the sign stayed there for three days in succession it was a financial catastrophe; it meant a long cold wait in the soup lines.

    But when a race war breaks out between a white faction and a Puerto Rican group, Whitey the bum reflects on his former life, the type of activity Kromer cautions against. “A guy can't always be thinking,” Kromer writes. “If a guy is thinking all the time, pretty soon he will go crazy. A man is bound to land up in the booby-hatch if he stays on the fritz.” It's a warning both Goodis and his protagonists might have done well to heed, not that Kromer offers any sophisticated solutions. He prescribes drink as a means of quieting the mind, and Whitey bookends his foray into the past with intense, committed drinking. But for the 160-odd pages in between, he follows the Goodis path, confronting sudden hardship and reflecting on the events that brought him to this critical moment. Street of No Return was written after Goodis returned from Hollywood, and it shows a cinematic influence on his style, particularly on his visual descriptions. The dialogue is as sparkling as ever, which makes it an even greater shame that he engineers a convoluted resolution to the race war that had driven the tension around Whitey throughout the book.

    Though Whitey has a more glamorous past than the average Goodis hero (if one may call them that), they’re all tethered to the past. In Dark Passage, Vincent Parry escapes from San Quentin, but no matter how far he runs, the specter of his wife's murder, of which he was wrongly convicted, trails him. Bill Kerrigan spends the whole of The Moon in the Gutter circling around the events that led to his sister's murder. James Vanning tries to live a quiet life as a commercial artist in Nightfall, but a lost satchel of stolen money hangs around his neck. The Burglar follows a small criminal gang led by Nat Harbin, whose ties to the past are figured by a human bond: he acts as a sort of surrogate father to Gladden, a young woman who works with him. He knew the girl's father, and first accepted his obligation when Gladden was “a tiny, sad little girl whose mother had died while giving birth to her.” He had her paperwork fixed and she was “officially designated as his kid sister.” And so, when other members of the gang suggest to him that no good will come of including a woman in their work, he “couldn't convey to [them] the reasons why they had to retain Gladden. The reasons were deep and there were times when he tried to study them and could not figure them out himself.” Wrapped up in those reasons is a nascent attraction to the girl, which speaks to the emotional and psychological complexity of Goodis’s universe.  

    Near the end of his life, Somerset Maugham was asked about his legacy. “I know just where I stand,” he said, “in the very front of the second rate.” It's unclear how Goodis rated his own talent, or if he even considered such a question. He was a working writer, able to parlay stories into a solid living. Despite speculation to the contrary, he died with a tidy sum in the bank. Any loftier aims probably came second. Down There is perhaps the best of Goodis, but the five novels here make a compelling case that there was more to him than the one good book. They are a strong argument for his elevation to the highest ranks of noir writers and — with their eloquent, obsessive bleakness — form a unique contribution to twentieth-century American literature. Goodis struggled to balance his urge for privacy with his rising public profile. Had he done a better job, his name might be more familiar today. Nonetheless, he deserves a seat at the table, with the greats of the genre. Maybe he'll finally be comfortable at it.

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    LARB Contributor

    John McIntyre has written for The American Scholar, The Economist, Brick: A Literary Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. He was born and raised in Tennessee, and now lives in New Jersey, home of America’s best Portuguese food. Follow him on Twitter @jtmcntyr. 


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