David Goodis – Poet of the Damned
All good writing is autobiographical someone once said. In general that’s true but I would have to qualify that by saying in some authors more than others. There is a kind of professional writing that is more about expertise, structure and craft than it is about self revelation. It isn’t easy to do and requires a lot of hard work to develop those skills. I respect those who can do it and do it well. But I love the kind of writer who can’t help but bare his/her soul everytime they sit down and put pen to paper. One such is the pulp noir writer David Goodis (1917-1967) best known for the novel Down There (1956) that was adapted by film director Francois Truffaut into the French New Wave classic Shoot the Piano Player (1960).
Now long before I knew anything about writing or literature especially the middle class hierarchy that placed original paperback novels on the bottom shelf of the literary woodpile I had been reading guys like Frederick Brown, Jim Thompson, Day Keene, Charles Willeford and Charles Williams not just as entertainments but as literature as well. And later on when the teachers of various academic courses tried to tell me different I stubbornly held on to the notion that I was right and they were wrong. Not just wrong but foolishly and snobbishly so. And I still hold to that.
Lately I began reading Goodis again and now I’m more convinced than ever. He has been called “The poet of the down and outers”… “The spokesman of the losers”… “The Herald of the bad dream Bogarts” etc. All of those descriptions are wholly appropriate. Read any one of his novels and you’re not just immersed into his world of waterfronts and cheap whisky bars, you’re submerged into a no-exit zone of low lifes and disenchanteds whose only escape from the twilight world they live in is the crime they can get away with. His principal characters are drunks, sexy and frequently possessive women, and a whole herd of weak men in the service of heartless cruel ones. They are works that for the most part rob us of our innocence and take us into the underbelly of society where alcohol and violence define the boundaries of existence. It’s a world we don’t want to see or acknowledge but somehow can’t look away from. All thanks to Mr. Goodis. Someone had to speak for these lost souls and I as a reader am grateful that it’s him.
And as it turns out his writing reflected the life he lived. They reflect his world both inside and out. He was down and out in a way that George Orwell never experienced in either London or Paris. But damn could the man write. Here’s a quickie from his novel Black Friday (1954).
Frieda was a big woman. She was one sixty if she was an ounce, more solid than soft, packed into five feet five inches and molded majestically. He guessed she didn’t wear a girdle and when she turned her back to him and leaned over slightly he was certain of it…She bent over even further and her calves were the same as the rest of her, solid, round fat coming down rhythmically to slim ankles giving way to high heels that she hadn’t been wearing before.
From Cassidy’s Girl (1951)
He was seeing the night -black hair of Mildred, the disordered shiny mass of heavy hair. He was seeing the brandy-colored eyes, long lashed, very long lashed. And the arrogant upturned curve of her gorgeous nose. He was trying with all his power to hate the sight of her full fruit-like lips, and the maddening display of her immense breasts, the way they swept out, aimed at him like weapons. He stood there looking at the woman to whom he had been married for almost four years, with whom he slept in the same bed every night, but what he saw was not a mate. He saw a harsh and biting and downright unbearable obsession.
Most of the books, the best ones anyway, are still available and I recommend them without hesitation. Some titles besides the ones already mentioned that you might want to look at include; Nightfall (1947), Street of No Return (1952) and The Burglar (1953). The Black Lizard editions come with a terrific introductory essay on his life by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Our literary heritage is considerably richer than we think but we sometimes don’t know it. The reason being that so many worthwhile writers fall through the cracks because of middle class/ academic elitism. David Goodis is one of them. It is now time to bring him out and into the light.