Tuesday, December 4, 2012
David Goodis - Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s
The world was spinning in the wrong direction (p. 190).
Decades ago, David Goodis penned millions of words for the pulp magazines, worked on innumerable screenplays, and released a slew of classic Crime novels, including The Wounded and the Slain. Now the Library of America has released five of Goodis' novels in a single hardcover volume, and I gladly took the chance to delve deeper into the author's brutal depiction of our urban underbelly. Between the five, the characters, plots, and the presence of hope all vary considerably, but the quality of Goodis' work and the desperation of his vision are inescapable throughout.
The synopsis on the volume's back describes Dark Passage as the story of an innocent man railroaded for his wife's murder. It's accurate, but the railroading is broader than that. Goodis' characters entire lives have been railroaded. They have been condemned to live in a world they did not create, in a hopeless situation that they almost certainly cannot escape. As Goodis writes of Nathaniel Harbin in The Burglar: The world was an avalanche, taking him down (p. 362).
Goodis writes of desperation and of defiance. His men and women may find themselves in a hopeless world, but they do not surrender to it, and they will not, no matter the damage it does to them. In Street of No Return, a famous singer is beaten by two thugs. He can stop the blows any time he wants. All he has to do is give up on the woman he loves. Convinced? they ask as the blackjack falls. Convinced now? Every time, his answer is No (pp. 702-3). Finally, they hit his throat, and he loses his voice. They leave him, and he thinks that they have won. But, if Goodis is the visionary of hopeless realities, he's also a master of the hope within us, no matter the odds against it. As the singer tells himself, They didn't convince you after all (p. 749).
This kind of hope is not one borne of chances or a belief in success. It's not an indomitability of flesh but of spirit. It's not simple masochism; it's neither a wish for pain nor an ideal belief to hold actionless in the night. It's simply that Goodis' characters cannot, and will not, quit, and their determination is a matter of them and their goals, not of attainability. At the end of one novel, an innocent man, his case now hopeless, speaks to his love one last time and begins to list the nearly endless fortune they would require to ever see each other again. We'll skip the ifs, she tells him (p. 192). Reading those lines is a strange experience. Everything in the novel before them has gone wrong. The protagonist is on the run, and he can never fully escape. And yet the reader is feeling almost empowered as they turn the last page.
While hope is crucial to Goodis novels, ambition for the worldly is not. The things – the luxuries – that ambition brings are, for Goodis, almost immaterial. Though some are, it's a mistake to think every Goodis protagonist destitute. The wonderfully named Nathaniel Harbin is even covetous of material wealth, and Nightfall's James Vanning has stumbled across a massive fortune. But those fortunes prove as restraining, and as ruining, as poverty. Nathaniel knows that, ultimately, luxurious sensations never lasted for long and even while it happened was accompanied by the dismal knowledge that it would soon be over (pp. 417-8).
Goodis' characters hope for simpler things, more essential things. They crave survival, though it is far from a sure thing in these pages. They want happiness, nothing extravagant, but rather the simple and ordinary kind (p. 5), as the protagonist of Dark Passage puts it. And, perhaps the most powerfully of all, they hope for love and love's success. They know, of course, that these goals are not necessarily all compatible. Caring for another hurts them. Love hurts their chances. It is, without a doubt, a problem (p. 596). Often, it threatens to doom them or actually does. Nonetheless, it may be the only thing that makes all the pain worthwhile. It may be the only way to truly escape, or maybe even to transcend, the misery of the world. Speaking of Street of No Return's singer and the love he was beaten for, Goodis writes: In the bed with her it was dark but somehow blazing like the core of a shooting star. It was going 'way out past all space and all time (p. 689).
All of this is beautifully forced upon the reader by some of the strongest prose I've ever read. Goodis' writing is a complex art crafted from the simplest of building blocks. On the sentence level, Goodis is fully capable of fantastic imagery, such as: In the ash tray near the bed, the stubs became a family that grew through the night (p. 298). But those sentences are easy reads, graspable things, and, above all, perfectly in character. Every sentence is the very embodiment of the speaker or viewpoint's soul and mood and thought. It's likely this gift with plain but evocative prose that grants Goodis his gift for dialogue. His characters speak with their own voices, and he has the rare gift of being able to let them converse on any topic that enters their mind while still showing so much of their character so as to never feel as if he is going off topic.
Things don't stop at the sentence level, though, for, at the novels' key moments, these sentences flow into one another, thoughts flowing into thoughts, until we end with passages of nearly free association, of a stream of consciousness made of the simplest parts that never loses their easy heart of understandability. In this way, Goodis blends individually clear images with one another to create wholly new modes and tones, and his protagonists wrestle with themselves and their own thought as the text follows along with their argument, an internal debate that reads with all the force of our own. A relatively brief example, in which the protagonist of Dark Passage thinks of the constraints he was under even before the crime:
He was going back and taking chunks out of his life and holding them up to examine them. The young and bright yellow days in the hot sun of Maricopa, always bright yellow in every season. The wide and white roads going north from Arizona. The grey and violet of San Francisco. The grey and the heat of the stock room, and the days and nights of nothing, the years of nothing. And the cage in the investment security house, and the stiff white collars of the executives, stiff and newly white every day, and their faces every day, and their voices every day. And the paper, the plain white paper, the pink paper, the pale-green paper, the paper ruled violet and green and black in small ledgers and large ledgers and immense ledgers. And the faces (pp. 102-3).
In terms of the novels themselves, the first two are by far the closest of any of the pieces here. Both Dark Passage and Nightfall star men wrongly pursued by the full weight of the law and desperate to clear their names. Furthermore, both possess puzzle style crimes that the protagonists must solve if they are to have any hope or proving their innocence. The mystery in the latter relies to a large extent on one very nonsensical act that makes guessing it before the reveal just about impossible, so, in that regard, the former is the stronger. Still, Nightfall can boast the bizarre but fascinating relationship between its protagonist and the detective that pursues him and, gradually, begins to believe in his innocence and to strive as hard as he to clear his name.
Like those two, The Burglar has a suspenseful plot that has its characters struggling to escape the law and keep their lives. But, and rather unlike them, its heroes are most certainly not innocent. Nathaniel Harbin and his closest friends are professional burglars. But while they might be nominally outside of society's rules, they are not out of its heart: Every animal, including the human being, is a criminal, and every move in life is a part of the vast process of crime. What law, Gerald would ask, could control the need to take food and put it in the stomach? No law, Gerald would say, could erase the practice of taking. According to Gerald, he basic and primary moves in life amounted to nothing more than this business of taking, to take it and get away with it (p. 416).
Nathaniel and his fellows were born at the bottom, were left with nothing. They refused to stay there, and they have fought their way to a living. But that living is not secure, and, now, they have come up against a foe that may prove as unprincipled and as determined as they are. Despite its solid illegality, The Burglar is not an amoral novel. Though a crook, Nathaniel has not left honor. Behind as his mentor once said: What mattered, what mattered high up there by itself all alone […] was whether things are honorable (p. 418). As it progresses, The Burglar becomes a tale of honor tested and also of different and impossible kinds of love. I won't spoil the finish's particulars, but I will say that The Burglar has one of the most crushing endings of any book I've read.
Though still certainly a Goodis work, The Moon in the Gutter is a very different beast from its fellows here. Like The Blonde on the Street Corner (not included here), it is a largely plotless exploration of society's lowest rungs. Kerrigan is very aware that he and all the other denizens of Vernon Street are riding through life on a fourth-class ticket (p. 496), but he has nonetheless fallen in love with an uptown woman who loves him back. Furthermore, he must face his sister's pointless and ugly death mere months before. The novel's climax comes as Kerrigan looks out a window, over the houses and denizens of Vernon Street, and suffers the following revelation:
And no matter where the weaker ones were hiding, they'd never get away from the Vernon moon. It had them trapped. It had them doomed. Sooner or later they'd be mauled and battered and crushed. They'd learn the hard way that Vernon Street was no place or delicate bodies or timid souls. They were prey, that was all, they were destined for the maw of the ever hungry eater, the Vernor gutter.
He stared out at the moonlit street. Without sound he said, You did it to [my sister]. You (p. 615).
Though inevitable, the revelation is not altogether satisfying. When Kerrigan decides that he and his love can never be together, it's not a surprising decision, but the reader has still never seen a single scene of their failing to be so, only presentiments that it will happen. It's painful to see one of Goodis' narrators give up his struggle and bow his head to fate, but, while The Moon in the Gutter is a powerful read, it's the least successful one in this collection.
Street of No Return is a more eventful than the preceding read, but its strongpoint is not its plot, which is held together by a bevy of coincidences and a revelation that is not as hard to piece together as the characters might have you believe. That is not, however, to say that it is a weak novel, for here Goodis excels with his atmospheric depictions of Philadelphia and through his portrayal of his protagonist, the once-famous singer that I discussed long ago in the review's beginning and that singer's slow motion suicide, his life lived after his loss as Going down. One step at a time (p. 708). Furthermore, Goodis quickly and sympathetically establishes his police characters and those of the other souls the novel's protagonist meets in his flight. The book's climax is a triumph, and a clearing of the main character's name, but it is not a final triumph, and, after what could in many novels be a Happy Ever After, Goodis shows his hero return without a word to the near-hopeless brutality of the life he's left.
In this collection, the Library of America was kind enough to give us five brutally powerful novels, each resplendent with not only overwhelming darkness but also strength and hope. David Goodis is a master of Noir, and this is the largest, and likely best, collection of his work you'll find anywhere.