MARCH 7, 2019
HARD-BOILED NOIR FICTION has produced more than its share of cult writers, but pulp novelist and periodically successful Hollywood screenwriter David Goodis is in a league of his own. His status, first nurtured in France through Gallimard’s Série Noire imprint, has grown steadily since François Truffaut’s film Tirez sur le pianiste, based on Goodis’s novel Down There (1956), was released in 1960. That book would be reprinted in the United States a few years later by Grove Press, retitled, to capitalize on the film, Shoot the Piano Player (1962). What success the latter garnered no doubt had less to do with Goodis’s name and reputation than with Truffaut’s, though Henry Miller’s blurb gracing its cover might have given the reprint added heft. Yet even before Down There’s initial publication as a Gold Medal paperback in 1956, Goodis had some 14 novels under his belt, including pulp classics like Dark Passage (1946), adapted for the screen by Delmer Daves in 1947; Nightfall (1947), adapted by Stirling Silliphant for Jacques Tourneur in 1957; and The Burglar (1953), filmed by Paul Wendkos in 1957 from a screenplay — his most accomplished — by Goodis himself.
The publication of Philippe Garnier’s groundbreaking Goodis, la vie en noir et blanc in France in 1984 went some way toward confirming Goodis’s status as a cult writer. Nine years later, James Sallis’s Difficult Lives (1993) placed Goodis in a select pantheon alongside two other cult noir writers, Jim Thompson and Chester Himes. Goodis would also feature heavily in two of my own books, Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (2002). The last three volumes all owe a debt to Garnier’s investigative work, which turned up a number of people who had been close to Goodis throughout his truly difficult life.
It was only a year before Garnier’s book appeared that Zomba Books in the United Kingdom published Four Novels: Nightfall / Down There / Dark Passage / The Moon in the Gutter (1983), bringing Goodis back into print in English. This was followed by a series of Black Lizard reissues in the United States — Shoot the Piano Player (1990), Black Friday (1990, originally published in 1954), Street of No Return (1991, originally published in 1954), Cassidy’s Girl (1992, originally published in 1951), and Night Squad (1992, originally published in 1962). Some two decades after his death in 1967, this writer of street-level noir romanticism was back on the streets.
How times have changed. There is now an English-language edition of Garnier’s book, and he has written a follow-up, Retour vers David Goodis (2016), which has yet to be translated into English. Not only are Goodis’s novels relatively easy to obtain in paperback, but, thanks to early Goodis advocate Geoffrey O’Brien, there is even a Library of America collection of five of them, edited by poet and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito. Add to that NoirCon, a biennial conference in Philadelphia inspired by David Goodis. There have also been more film adaptations, including Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1983 La Lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter) and Samuel Fuller’s Street of No Return (1989). All this has further burnished Goodis’s status as the noir cult novelist, although sometimes one senses that this status owes as much to his eccentric proclivities as to his actual writing. That is unfortunate, because no one writes quite like Goodis. His hard-hitting, poetic prose dignifies the residents of society’s margins: petty criminals, alcoholics, the flawed, the wrecked, the compromised — torn by cruel obsessions, tortured by unattainable aspirations, and weighed down with secret guilt.
Which brings us to Jay Gertzman’s Pulp According to David Goodis, the latest addition to what appears to be a slowly expanding cottage industry. Unlike the aforementioned books, Gertzman’s is, for the most part, a straightforward socioliterary analysis of Goodis’s fiction. Ironic, then, that Gertzman, whose previous work includes a study of the notorious Greenwich Village publisher and writer Samuel Roth, should kick-start his impressively researched study on a purely personal note, recalling two possible Goodis sightings, both on Philadelphia’s Broad Street in the 1950s. Whether fanciful or not, those opening paragraphs are a rare instance of the first person in what has to be considered Gertzman’s private and (in proper Goodis fashion) obsessive pursuit of the author.
Right from the start, Gertzman makes it clear that Pulp According to David Goodis is by no means a biography. It’s Goodis’s writing that interests Gertzman, and he intends to delve into the author’s private life only as it relates to his 18 novels and numerous short stories. Of course, Goodis would have been greatly amused by this kind of scholarly attention. Having begun his novel-writing career in 1939 with the Hemingwayesque Retreat from Oblivion, hoping to join the proper literary establishment, Goodis soon came to embrace — as much by choice as by force of circumstance — the role of popular writer. A retreat from oblivion, indeed. That said, as Gertzman points out, Goodis considered his novels to be more than crime stories; they were psychological portraits of the life on the other side of the tracks, in conditions of poverty or near-poverty. He pioneered an in-between genre, which Gertzman, with tongue only half in cheek, refers to as “Philly, and south Jersey, gothic.” Gertzman also balks at applying the term hard-boiled to Goodis’s writing, preferring to call it noir; he explains, with reference to critic Eddie Duggan, that while the former deploys as its backdrop social corruption, the latter is concerned with the interior life of a given protagonist, including his or her obsessions, psychic wounds, self-hatred, sociopathy, and compulsion to control others. To my mind, given those definitions, it’s clear that while Goodis belongs in, and maybe even owns, the terrain of noir, he doesn’t altogether forsake the hard-boiled either.
Democratic in his deployment of sources, Gertzman immerses himself in Goodis’s work to produce some far-reaching comparisons, not only with other pulpsters like Peter Rabe, Charles Willeford, and James M. Cain, but also with literary heavyweights like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Franz Kafka. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to Goodis as “The Pulp Kafka of Philadelphia.” Yet categorizing Goodis’s work as Kafkaesque is, for me, a bit of a stretch. Of course, there are similarities: both are Jewish and both portray alienated characters stretched to breaking point by their encounters with the state and its bureaucracy. However, the term Kafkaesque also implies a particular kind of humor based on a confrontation with the absurd nature of the world, and that is something one glimpses only occasionally in Goodis’s work. Still, the comparison is provocative and fruitful, in that it forces us to regard these novels, which had long been ignored by serious critics, as both a substantial artistic achievement and an expression of a distinctly 20th-century sensibility. And the same can be said for Gertzman’s recourse to cultural witnesses like Sigmund Freud and Slavoj Žižek; even if his theoretical analysis doesn’t always hit the target, it manages to expose the depths of Goodis’s narratives. Such discussions are a welcome addition to what might otherwise have been simply a series of plot summaries.
For me, one of the highlights of the book has to be the chapter titled “Goodis’ Hard-boiled Philadelphia,” in which Gertzman embeds the author’s fiction in mid-20th-century Philly life. In fact, the novels are Philadelphian to a much greater degree than I had previously thought. Gertzman knows the city’s history and politics well enough to provide some precise background information for Cassidy’s Girl, The Moon in the Gutter (1953), Street of No Return, Street of the Lost (1952), and Down There. In the process, he takes the reader on a short but fascinating tour of Philadelphia’s skid row: Southwark, Dock Street, Kensington, and Port Richmond as they were in Goodis’s time, before gentrification began to alter the city. Goodis might have grown up in a middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood, but he clearly identified with those run-down parts of town.
Also included in this chapter are stories of those who, in one way or another, relate to conditions or persons portrayed in Goodis’s fiction. A prime example is Frank “The Cisco Kid” Rizzo, a street cop whose use of eminent domain and strong-arm tactics helped “cleanse” the waterfront and Dock Street of vagrants and, most shamefully, African Americans. This cleanup campaign would catapult Rizzo into the position of police commissioner and two terms as mayor in the 1970s, but would also eventually lead to his downfall. Being particularly fascinated by Goodis’s sense of place, I could have read an entire volume on the subject of his relationship with Philadelphia.
Despite some imbalances, Gertzman’s book will be a pleasure and, in many cases, a revelation for anyone familiar with David Goodis’s particular brand of pulp noir. But a warning to any reader who has yet to encounter Goodis: an interest in this author’s work is, more often than not, a life sentence. In the end, Pulp According to David Goodis is an excellent introduction to the author, which demands that the reader immediately turn to the work itself. No doubt Gertzman would regard that as a mission accomplished.
Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995), Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (1999), Heartbreak and Vine: the Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (2002), and of the novels Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime and Days of Smoke.