Reading: The Soft-Hearted Hard Guy | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: The Soft-Hearted Hard Guy 

The French think of David Goodis as a hard-boiled, hard-drinking pop existentialist, a literary genius brought low by fate. They're confusing him with his characters.

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It's no wonder that when the Philadelphia pulp writer David Goodis died in 1967, none of his 17 novels were in print in this country but 12 were still in circulation in France. To the French, Goodis was--and still is--a dearly loved hard-boiled, hard-drinking pop existentialist, unrecognized for his literary genius and snubbed by the fame he pursued ever since the publication of his first book in 1938.

The irony is that Goodis didn't drink, shunned fame, left an estate worth a quarter of a million dollars, and couldn't hold a candle to Chandler.

"The French love losers," said Philipe Garnier when he told me about his biography of Goodis. Written in French and published abroad in 1984, the book has yet to be translated into English. "Goodis has worked for every generation in France since the 40s; there's a sense that he's one of their own, yet they don't know a thing about him. My theory is that they don't want to know--they prefer rumors. They like their artists abused and unrecognized, and they identify him with his characters."

In the same year that Garnier's biography came out to set the French straight on the real David Goodis (a lower-middle-class Philadelphia Jew with enough peculiarities to top the fictions the French had invented for him), Black Lizard Press of Berkeley, California, was sowing the seeds of what it hoped would be a stateside Goodis renaissance. Black Lizard secured the rights to much of Goodis's oeuvre (with the regrettable exception of his single blockbuster, Dark Passage), and had published five Goodis paperbacks by the time Vintage bought the imprint in 1990. Vintage has since reissued chic trade versions of the books and added two more titles to the collection.

While Goodis's return to print hasn't sparked the cultish enthusiasm the recent Jim Thompson revival triggered, his books outdo Thompson's for their tangled plots, brooding characters, and--atypical for the genre--singular women. Like Thompson, he featured social outcasts caught in downward spirals of crime and debauchery. But while Thompson created seedy amoralists set in insidious, irreversible action, Goodis created characters full of moral confusion--they're often disgraced professionals or falsely accused criminals cornered into wrongdoing, they shoulder burdensome loyalties to friends, and they lose themselves in doomed but fervent love affairs. Some of Goodis's best dialogue, layered with subtext, is exchanged between kamikaze lovers negotiating free-falls into infatuation.

Goodis's overambitious first novel, Retreat From Oblivion (1938), was published the summer after he finished his BA in journalism at Philadelphia's Temple University. The novel's soupy blend of historical fiction and psychological melodrama didn't sell, so Goodis quickly shifted to pulp magazines, where he made a reasonable living cranking out World War I adventure and aviation stories. In 1946 he published his second novel, Dark Passage, a psychological thriller that would become his best-known book. Warner Brothers bought the movie rights that year, cast Bogart and Bacall, and hired Goodis as a screenwriter--at a salary of a thousand dollars a week. The 30-year-old author had hit pay dirt.

During his three years in Hollywood Goodis flaunted the trademark eccentricities his Philadelphia cronies knew so well, most notably his chronic stinginess. His penny-pinching may have stemmed from the Depression years, which were especially hard on his blue-collar family, but it was more likely the offshoot of a well-tended subversive streak. He rented a couch from a friend for four dollars a week and drove a run-down Chrysler convertible with a leaky roof--to the horror of Warner executives, who didn't want the monstrosity in their lot. He wore rumpled, secondhand suits hot-rodded with designer labels sewn in by his mother, and prided himself on his sartorial insurgence.

Goodis never mingled with Hollywood glitterati, preferring the company of aspiring performers, studio technicians, and fellow Philadelphians. He frequented black bars in the slums of LA as he had in Philly, though a kidney ailment prevented him from drinking. He indulged a penchant for practical jokes by staging fake fights and feigning nosebleeds in fancy restaurants, stuffing the red cellophane tear strips from cigarette wrappers in his nostrils. A publicity photo shows him playing the piano, but according to Garnier he only knew the opening bars of a few songs; he would bang them out with gusto at parties, then abandon the instrument when his short repertoire was exhausted.

"He was extremely attractive to women," says Garnier. "In Hollywood, he got constant invitations to parties from people like Lauren Bacall, but he wasn't interested. He subscribed to leftist newspapers because they listed dances and benefits, and he was more interested in secretaries' balls. But he was a chameleon: he worked on his eccentricity, yet he could go to the Main Line and behave. He could talk to anyone from any social stratum."

Goodis's leading men were similarly adaptable. One of his best novels, Nightfall (1947), stars a well-educated graphic artist named Vanning who gets framed by a pair of thieves running from a bank heist. Hiding out in New York, Vanning is hounded by the heisters--in search of the misplaced loot--and trailed by a police detective named Fraser, who delays the arrest on a hunch that Vanning is innocent. Vanning falls in love with the comely stool pigeon the thieves recruit to snare him, but he survives by thinking like a criminal and triumphs in one of Goodis's few happy endings.

A devoted son whose mother was his first love, Goodis wrote Nightfall during one of the few stretches he spent away from his parents in Philadelphia and it shows. He injected it with great doses of familial yearning: "It was worth everything," wrote Goodis, "all the struggle and heartache and worry, if only someday [Vanning] could marry someone real and good, and have kids." Goodis disliked LA and missed his family enough to leave in 1950 with only a single screenplay credit and an unproduced treatment behind him. He moved back in with his parents (with whom he lived until their deaths more than a decade later) and his mentally disturbed brother Herbert, who bounced in and out of mental hospitals after trying to knife the mailman.

It may have been through Herbert, for whom Goodis felt a sense of guilty responsibility (and to whom he willed half his estate), that Goodis cultivated the acute sense of loyalty that drives many of his characters. For instance, Goodis's 1953 novel The Burglar hinges on the protagonist's devotion to the wan, trusting daughter of his long-dead foster father and criminal mentor, which interferes with his attraction to an alluring dupe who offers him what he wants most: an escape from crime. The character's dual enchantment with two impossibly different women is typical of Goodis's guilt-prone, emotionally malleable leading men. As Goodis liked it, the conflict proves deadly. (The Burglar was filmed in Philadelphia in 1955, with Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea as its leads.)

Throughout the 50s, Goodis wrote paperback originals that generally conformed to a three-part formula: they cast intelligent lushes flanked by a pair of women--one loud and vengeful, the other quiet and good-hearted--in punch-drunk dramas staged in sleazy waterfront neighborhoods.

The cartoonish Street of No Return (1954) describes a violent night in the life of Whitey, a skid-row bum who once enjoyed a promising career as a crooner and blew it by falling for a sibylline nightclub dancer. Goodis dreamed up two comically antipodal women for this one: the green-eyed, bronze-haired singer Celia ("the sight of her was really combustible") counters Bertha, an obscenely fat, utterly menacing thug enlisted by Celia's jealous boyfriend Sharkey to teach the five-foot-tall Whitey a lesson. Bertha gives Whitey a beating that would kill most men, and Goodis, at times his own heroes' worst adversary, revels in Whitey's protracted agony by studding the narrative with priceless nuggets of sick humor. Bertha begins by punching Whitey silly, then cops a gooey kiss from the youthful celebrity, who feels "the pressure of some gushy substance, tons of it [on his face], as if a carload of jelly had fallen on him." When Bertha's partner proposes chopping Whitey up and putting him in the furnace, she declines: "It means I'll have to use a scrubbing brush for at least an hour. It's eight fifteen now and I want to be upstairs when Bob Hope comes on."

Like naughty kids surrendering to inevitable spankings, Goodis's protagonists brave hard luck and brutal violence with a fatalistic attitude. According to Garnier, Goodis shared his characters' masochistic streak. "He had a kink about enormously fat black women--he loved to be abused and humiliated by them; it was the only way he could get his rocks off. I think it all stems from his brief marriage in the 40s to a redheaded model named Elaine, whom I was never able to locate. She was a Jewish American princess and he was an oddball; they were totally incompatible. He called their marriage a nightmare, and she later came to represent a type of woman he despised."

His fixation with virtuous heroes gone awry emerges with more complexity in Black Friday (also 1954). A masterful Goodis effort that's as Philadelphian as cheese steaks and scrapple, the book combines the author's signature ingredients--a family of criminals, an ambivalent killer, and a pair of disparate women, one fat, one thin, who play tug-of-war with the hero's sympathies. Hart is a Penn graduate and onetime art collector on the run from New Orleans, where he killed his brother to free him from the ravages of multiple sclerosis. Hoping to steal enough booty to get himself out of the country, he falls in with a gang of thieves planning the robbery of a Main Line mansion.

Hart's unfamiliarity with the machinations of the criminal underworld makes his story particularly riveting; he adopts their unspoken code like a frat boy obediently conforming to a new social mandate, but not without difficulty. Forced to help with the disposal of Myrna's brother (a grisly scene in which the body is hacked up and fed to the furnace by crooks who apparently don't break for Bob Hope), Hart concentrates on his memory of Corot landscapes to keep from getting sick, but the image of Courbet's Cato tearing out his own entrails undermines his escapist reverie. In the end, Hart's intrinsic goodness endures, even if it doesn't quite pay off.

Goodis recycled pet themes and characters throughout his career, but he developed them significantly in Shoot the Piano Player (1956, originally titled Down There). Predictably, it features a man with a past--a onetime concert pianist named Eddie employed in a dive bar in Philadelphia--and traces his unwilling entanglement in his brothers' criminal exploits. The novel explores the perils of both conjugal and fraternal allegiances: Eddie's overly devoted wife ruins their marriage in a shady effort to advance his career, and his parasitic brothers drag him into the quicksand of their crime ring. And though you wouldn't know it from Francois Truffaut's tragicomic film adaptation of 1960, the book features three of Goodis's most intriguing women--an endearing prostitute, a sensitive barkeep, and a savvy waitress named Lena.

For a writer who got his kicks getting knocked around by the weaker sex, Goodis concocted some remarkably likable and original ingenues. "There's nothing fragile about this one," he describes Lena. "That ain't a fragile nose or mouth or chin, and yet it's female, more female than them fragile-pretty types who look more like ornaments than girls." Unconventionally pretty or downright plain, it is Lena (like many of Goodis's leading women) who supplies the voice of reason in moments of crisis and it is Lena who hauls the wounded Eddie out of a basement and saves him from certain arrest. In Nightfall Fraser's sensible wife talks him out of a decision that would have sabotaged his search for, and the subsequent vindication of, Vanning.

By contrast, his villainous women are every bit as tough as the men, and they often prove it with their fists. Night Squad (1961), another minor venture with a tediously alveolate plot, includes a female bouncer who knocks down "a hairy-chested, bulky-shouldered construction worker" in a single swipe. "She weighed a good two-forty, compressed into five feet six inches," Goodis writes. "There was no loose fat; it was all solid beef. It amounted to a living missile, braced and aimed, ready for any man who figured he could tamper with her and get away with it."

Just as his protagonists are too sensitive to be classically hard-boiled, Goodis's women are too unusual to be genuine femmes fatales. But he rarely allowed relationships between his male protagonists and any of these iron-willed women to fly, and his sugary depictions of successful marriages carry traces of mockery. It's hard to say whether Goodis's own failed marriage soured his romantic imagination, or if the thwarted affairs he described simply supplied his books with sufficient melodrama to satisfy the pulp market.

Garnier's gripe against Goodis's French fans is that they refuse to recognize Goodis's novels for what they are: hasty efforts written for a fixed fee for publishers who couldn't afford to bid on serious literature. Goodis himself never pretended to be more than an eloquent hack. He was bold enough to push the limits of the genre, but realistic enough not to approach hardbound publishers with his work. And he was generally content with the film adaptations of his books, even when directors like Truffaut monkeyed with the plots. "I'm not Hammett," he would say, "there's no need to copy my novels exactly."

But if the French have overestimated his talents, Americans have yet to recognize Goodis's singular vision. He created chivalrous existentialists gnawed on by fate, then spat them out on Philadelphia streets bathed in moonlight, powdered with snow, or chilled by the winds of the Delaware River. Though much of their emotional drama rides on crisp internal monologue, Goodis's novels have inspired a variety of filmmakers, including Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall, 1957), Jean-Jacques Beineix (The Moon in the Gutter, 1983), and Samuel Fuller, who has yet to find an American distributor for his recent treatment of Street of No Return. Considering the number of ham-handed plot twists Goodis grafted onto his stories, they remain strangely logical, perhaps because the action--spectacular collisions between disparate social and moral sensibilities--takes place in the mirrored psyches of his resolute leading men.

As a writer who dodged the limelight and savored quirky twists of fate, Goodis would have appreciated the absurdity of his biographer's first visit to his former Philadelphia home more than a decade after his death. "Goodis?" the current resident responded. "We've heard of him. We found a book here by him but we threw it out--it was in French."

Black Friday, Burglar, Cassidy's Girl, Nightfall, Night Squad, Shoot the Piano Player, Street of No Return, by David Goodis, Vintage Books, all $8.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Chuck Nitti.

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