Sat 5 May 2012
DAVID GOODIS – Five Noir Novels of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Library of America, hardcover, March 2012.
I’ve been reading and collecting books from The Library of America ever since they first started coming out. At first it looked like they would just be publishing the works of the established literary figures, great authors like Henry James, Eugene O’Neill, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and so on.
But lately they have crossed over into more popular areas and genres by publishing two volumes of crime novels (including Down There by David Goodis), Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, two volumes titled American Fantastic Tales, and now David Goodis.
I see this as a very good sign for popular culture and the mystery and SF genres. I guess it is too much to hope for volumes dealing with great western fiction but seeing this volume on Goodis makes me hope that we will see collections by Jim Thompson, Peter Rabe, Charles Williams, John D. Macdonald, Ross Macdonald, Gil Brewer, and others.
We should not be surprised to see Goodis singled out for such attention because the French have long thought he was exceptional and in fact the only full length biography is in French. He was the poet of the bleak, doomed, and lost. It’s been said that Goodis did not write novels; he wrote suicide notes.
I first became aware of David Goodis back in the 1960’s when I started to collect the pulp magazines. His pulp career lasted from 1939 to about 1947. He has been quoted as saying that he produced millions of words for the sport, detective, and western pulps. But most of his work was published in what I call the air-war pulps. I eventually accumulated extensive runs of such titles as Fighting Aces, Battle Birds, RAF Wings, Dare-Devil Aces, and Sky Raiders. Goodis appeared in all these pulps with dozens of stories, perhaps over a hundred.
I would have to admit that I found his pulp work to be less than interesting. I’ve always had a problem with the air pulps with seemed to concentrate too much on airplanes and flying, while ignoring characterization and believable plots. I eventually sold, traded, and disposed of all my air-war magazines.
There is an excellent DVD dealing with Goodis’ life, marriage, and career called David Goodis … to a Pulp It’s a must for anyone interested in his writing and one of the extras points out that Goodis’ wife evidently felt the same way as I did concerning his pulp stories.
His wife told her second husband that the reason she left Goodis and divorced him was because she couldn’t stand his pulp writing that he was doing for the air-war magazines.
She must have received a shock when he broke into the slick market with his novel, Dark Passage for the Saturday Evening Post in 1946. Not only did he receive a far higher rate of pay than he was getting for his pulp work, but Hollywood paid $25,000 for the screen rights. In today’s money that is around a quarter of a million. The movie was not just your usual effort, but starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
At this time it was goodbye to the pulps and the beginning of his Hollywood career. Despite receiving good money he still wore threadbare suits and slept on the couch of a friend for $4.00 a month. He soon found himself out of a job and back in Philadelphia, living in his parents house, and writing original novels for such paperback firms as Gold Medal.
The Library of America edition reprints five complete novels. All five were made into interesting movies. and my comments on both the books and films follow:
● Dark Passage. Though this is Goodis’ first real success, I don’t think it is an outstanding novel. My feeling on a second reading was that it is OK, good in spots by nothing that special.
The story is not too believable and suffers from the happy ending. It reminds me of Cornell Woolrich, only not as good. I find the plot absurd with the rich, pretty girl falling in love with the loser convicted of murder. Also ridiculous to think that a cab driver and doctor would help the hero without even knowing anything about him.
I watched the movie for the sixth time (I have a Bogart book which I annotate every time I see one of his films), and it’s hard to believe that they would cover up his face in bandages for most of the movie. But it does follow the plot of the novel and I find it better than the book.
● Nightfall. This also is just OK but nothing that special. Another innocent man framed for murder and robbery. Both these novels have a silly scene where the hero gets the gun away from the criminal by distracting him with talk. And another beautiful girl.
Again I found the movie better than the book. It follows the basic plot with some changes but Aldo Ray is bland as the innocent man in trouble. Great villain.
● The Burglar. I found this novel to be better than the two above. Instead of the typical innocent man wrongly accused plots, this one was more believable with a professional jewel thief becoming involved in killings. Very downbeat ending, just what you would expect from Goodis.
The movie stars Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield and follows the plot of the novel. The fact that David Goodis wrote the screenplay makes this even more interesting.
● The Moon in the Gutter. With this book, it appears the novels are getting better. This one does not star a criminal or men framed for murder but has as a protagonist a laborer working on the docks and living in a slum area of Philly.
He hangs out in a dive called Dugan’s Den, which has the atmosphere and characters right out of a Eugene O’Neill play. Vernon Street in Philadelphia takes on a life of its own and becomes a character in the novel.
The movie was made in 1983 and is French with subtitles, starring Gerard Depardieu and Nastassia Kinski. It follows the basic plot of the novel.
● Street of No Return. Mediocre and not too believable. Skid row bum and drunk (a former famous singer) defeats criminal plan to cause race riots. Dialog is poor and the police act like idiots. Another beautiful girl falls for our hero.
The movie was directed by Samuel Fuller and stars Keith Carradine. However in this case, the film was even more disappointing than the novel. Believe me, you don’t want to see Keith Carradine in a fright wig, trying to act like a bum.
Despite the critical comments above, I did enjoy reading the five novels but lucky for me after reading them I immediately spent some time at a book convention buying and reading pulps. Otherwise, I might have hanged myself. No wonder Goodis lived such a short life, from 1917 to 1967.
Bibliography (novels and story collections only)
Retreat from Oblivion, 1939.
Dark Passage, 1946.
Behold This Woman, 1947.
Of Missing Persons, 1950.
Cassidy’s Girl, 1951.
Of Tender Sin, 1952.
Street of the Lost, 1952.
The Burglar, 1953.
The Moon in the Gutter, 1953.
Black Friday, 1954.
Street of No Return, 1954.
The Blonde on the Street Corner, 1954.
The Wounded and the Slain, 1955.
Down There (Shoot the Piano Player), 1956.
Fire in the Flesh, 1957.
Night Squad, 1961.
Somebody’s Done For, 1967.
Black Friday and Selected Stories, 2006. [A collection of his shorter work from such magazines as Ten Story Mystery, Colliers, New Detective, Manhunt and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.]