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'The Mystery Man of Hardboiled Fiction'

January 4, 2007 By:
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David Goodis is the cult writer supreme, eclipsed perhaps only by Philip K. Dick of science-fiction fame and Jim Thompson, whom Goodis resembles, at least in a literary sense. All of the elements fell into place fairly early for Goodis to justify the bestowal of cult status: He, like Thompson and Dick, wrote genre fiction, in his case noir crime novels that examine the seedy underbelly of modern urban life in mid-century America. His writing career -- almost all of it directed at the commercial paperback market of the 1950s and '60s -- began with striking success, then was dominated by struggle and obscurity. To top things off, he died on the youngish side, a victim of circumstance and excess.

What is known of Goodis' life and career -- the few hard and fast details -- is laid out concisely in introductions to various paperback reprints of his novels, especially those issued by Serpent's Tail, a British publishing house, and Black Lizard Books here. The authors of these prefatory pieces are Adrian Wootton and Geoffrey O'Brien, respectively. Wootton is a British film executive and O'Brien a writer and critic, and both are devoted fans of noir fiction, Goodis' particularly. They cover the same general terrain in their prefatory remarks.

Wootton, for example, describes Goodis as always something of a shadowy figure, "his short life shrouded in mystery." (O'Brien has called him "the mystery man of hardboiled fiction.") The writer was born in Philadelphia in 1917 into a Jewish family on the lower edge of the middle class and "had a solid, unspectacular education." After attending Indiana University and then graduating from Temple with a journalism degree, he worked as a copywriter at an ad agency while literally "producing millions of words for pulp short story magazines and contributing scripts for radio serials."

His brush with fame came when his first crime novel, Dark Passage, published in book form in 1946, was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and then purchased by Warner Bros. as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The nod from Hollywood also led to a contract as a screenwriter, but after a few unproductive and frustrating years in Los Angeles, Goodis headed back to Philadelphia where he lived with his parents, in obscurity, till his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1967. (It seems, by all accounts, that after the deaths of his mother and father, his life unraveled rather quickly.) Despite these grim circumstamces, he still managed to crank out a series of modestly successful paperback novels, the bulk of them for the Gold Medal imprint.

The Internet provides some further details. The Wikipedia entry, which includes an unsmiling, black-and-white photo of the novelist, taken -- perhaps characteristically -- in profile, notes that Goodis had two younger brothers, one of whom died of meningitis at age 3. When the writer returned from Hollywood in 1950, he moved back into his parents' home where his schizophrenic brother Herbert also lived. At night, the entry states, "he prowled the underside of Philadelphia, hanging out in nightclubs and seedy bars," a milieu that dominates his novels and sometimes seems the source of the hopelessness and despair that marks so much of his prose.

Still, despite the obscurity Goodis sought, his career path was fairly typical for a crime writer of the time, according to Wootton. "There are similarities," he explains, "between [Goodis] and other notable writers, such as Jim Thompson. But, unlike Thompson's, the Goodis revival has never really happened. Perhaps his work is too dark, too depressing or just too plain sad to attract more than a small coterie of readers." No efforts by fans, critics or filmmakers have been able to convince the mass of readers that this novelist is worth knowing. (Goodis is particularly beloved by the French -- readers and directors alike -- and perhaps the most famous movie made from one of his novels is Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, based on Down There, which is set in Philadelphia's Port Richmond section.)

The key to Goodis' worldview -- if that's not too grand a term to apply to such gritty, abrasive novels -- can be found, as Wootton suggests, in his titles: Nightfall, Of Missing Persons, The Moon in the Gutter, Black Friday, Street of No Return. Goodis rarely wrote about cops and robbers directly and never created a series character or detective that he followed from one novel to the next. Rather, as Wootton points out, "he mined a more individual -- albeit limited -- seam of stories set in the back streets, dumps and dives of urban anytown in the USA (although all his cities were really Philadelphia thinly disguised)."

Though certain of Goodis' characters may have criminal intent on their minds, none of this, Wootton suggests, was of particular interest to the writer. "The main thing for Goodis is the emotional turmoil of life and people who, for whatever reason, are losers -- romantic, twisted, sometimes exciting, but losers nonetheless, mired in circumstances from which there is no escape. ... His men are lonely, melancholic individuals, often artists who have cracked up or been in some way irreparably damaged. His women on the other hand, veer from the plain, almost saintly sister/good girlfriend through to the sexually rapacious lover/whore." Though these may all be stereotypes -- and Goodis traffics in them repeatedly -- Wootton is correct when he says that the writer "invests them with such fierce life that you cannot help but get hooked." Goodis' writing, he insists, though replete with "hardboiled dialogue and black humor," as well as a penchant for melodrama, manages to have "a poetic, almost frightening intensity that makes his stories compulsive page turners."

Take, for example, The Moon in the Gutter, which was published first in 1953 and is one of three reprinted recently by Serpent's Tail. Wootton says that the novel was written during the most fertile period of Goodis' career (The Burglar was written at about the same time) and has all "the classic components" of a Goodis narrative: "a low-life setting, a doomed romance, a man caught between his family and the chance of a new life, a painter on the slide, and the typical Goodis references to boxing and be-bop jazz."

Another indispensible point was made in a piece I found during my Internet search. David L. Ulin writes of The Blonde on the Street Corner that virtually all of the writer's characteristic themes are in evidence: "First, there's the idea of a man caught between two women, one innocent and the other destructive, which recurs throughout his oeuvre. But even more to the point is his tendency to write about artists who have, in one way or another, fallen on hard luck. Ralph [Creel] is just one in a long line of Goodis anitheroes, like Whitey, who goes from crooner to skid row alcoholic in Street of No Return, or Hart, the painter protagonist of Black Friday, who becomes a criminal on the run. Reading about these figures, it's hard not to see Goodis' story within them, as if his novels were less pieces of fiction than installments in one long autobiographical work."

Genre writing can be overpraised at times by literary types who feel their profession is too effete and that people like Goodis have a lock on authenticity, on "the real." Be forewarned: There's a lot that's wrong with Goodis that stems directly from his use of genre cliches. Plot is not his strongest suit, with the action often driven by improbable happenstance. He also has a penchant for the lurid. But when he's good -- and he is good more times than he's bad -- there is no one quite like him, even certain literary writers who've been praised to the skies as geniuses.

If any of this sounds intriguing, you should take yourself to Society Hill Playhouse this weekend where a conference on Goodis is being held to mark the 40th anniversary of the writer's death. The event will feature panel discussions (including Britain's Wootton), screenings of films made from Goodis novels, a trip to the author's grave and a stop at the Goodis archives at Temple University. The theater is located at 507 S. 8th St. Information on the conference is available at societyhillplayhouse.org/goodiscon.html or by calling 215-923-0211.  

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