Tuesday, March 1, 2011

David Goodis - The Wounded and the Slain

So if the question is asked What’s it amount to? the answer comes sliding out easily: It’s just a merry go round that stops every now and then for some to get off and others to get on, and no matter how much you pay for your ticket, no matter how many brass rings you snatch, it’s only a matter of time before our place is taken by the next customer emerging from some womb to start the ride. So in the final analysis, it’s merely the process of being taken for a ride, and despite all the bright colors and the hurdy-gurdy music, despite the gleeful yells as the amusement machine goes round and round, the windup is a hole in the ground where the night crawlers get awfully hungry when it rains. (p. 180)

The Wounded and the Slain is a meandering and squalid crime novel that focuses on the depressed lives of its protagonists and staggers around in their beaten-down footsteps. The novel’s focus isn’t on whether the two can succeed, but rather whether they can change themselves enough to even attempt change.

James and Cora Bevan are unable to connect with one another and are miserable from their attempts to try. Cora has never been able to enjoy intimacy with James. The two were deeply in love, however, and each did their best to live with the other’s needs and inadequacies. Love wasn’t enough, though, and James soon finds himself stagnant and miserable in what he’d always thought would be a blazing romance, drowning, The way a moth goes for the blue-white flame, but it turns out to be an icicle that freezes him to nothingness very quickly. (p. 17)

James and Cora, acutely aware of how they’re perceived by those around them, have no ability to help themselves. Their lives have been dictated by their roles and their society. He works on wall street, acting and looking exactly as you’d expect. She forces herself to try and connect with him again and again, no matter how much it hurts her. Shaped by those around him, he’s a smoothly polished custom-tailored nothing (p. 230), she a meaningless ornament wearing a dress (p. 245).

The two of them are in Jamaica, taking a physician-recommended vacation that neither wants or believes can help. The city of New York was never their problem; the problem was the way that James, desperate to find something worth living for, first finds solace with a prostitute and then (when decorum and conscience forces him to break that off) loses himself in the accepted, understood stupor of alcohol.

James is not deluded. He knows exactly what he’s become, and his self-punishment – an endless cycle of recriminations that drive him to further immoral depths – soon causes him to resolve the seemingly normal people all around him, the healthy and wealthy and well-adjusted tourists that fill the Laurel Rock Hotel:

And yet, as he gazed down from the opened window, he knew there was something wrong with the picture. What you mean is, he thought, there’s something wrong with this party looking at the picture. This party doesn’t belong in that setting. That setting is strictly for sober-minded individuals who know how to behave themselves. And this party here, this weak-kneed, weak-brained gin-head – oh, yes, this perfect example of ruination, this absolute failure – (p. 31)

As a result, James does his best to leave the culture he’s known all his life and heads to the worst areas of Kingston that he can find. Barry Street is filled with robbers, killers, and vicious fights, and it’s there that James settles and proceeds to do his best to drink himself away while contemplating suicide and the many, many ways that he’s failed the trappings of his successful lifestyle.

This is where, almost as an afterthought, the actual crime portion comes into play. Don’t get me wrong, The Wounded and the Slain is a crime novel; it’s just that the crime, rather than being the motivator or crisis that the characters are put through, is a result of the characters, a symptom rather than a cause of their predicament.

James, almost accidentally forced into the role of murderer, has as little idea of how to play this new part as he did about how to play his old one. In an attempt to give his life agency and motive, he tries to cast himself as a willful slayer, a beast out for blood, but such a guise soon becomes unpalatable and dangerous in the wake of his actions.

Both James and Cora are dragged, perhaps willingly, into the depths of Kingston. There is a chance that they will find their answers there, but there is also a chance that they will not, and it is clear from the text and conclusion of the novel that Goodis is not a writer concerned with fleeting moments of personal revelation. He gazes, instead, at the agonizing yeas before and after those too-brief epiphanies, the dark times when it’s uncertain whether anything has been or can be accomplished, and, during their journey through those dark years and dark places, dirt stains and destroys the fastidious image that the Bevans have created and tried to pretend was their lives. As a Jamaican character says: And de lesson of it is, when dey leave de fine hotel and come down to play in de mud, dey get muddy. (p. 190)

The best way to describe David Goodis’s prose is passionate, albeit not in any typical definition of the word. Goodis writes freely, loosely, allowing ideas to flow into one other with a deadbeat energy that defies the dreariness of the events he depicts. He pays little attention to the supposed rules of writing. His story is, in large, part telling rather than showing, large segments of internal debates often written in either second or first person breaking up the vivid third person scenes of motion. In addition to his more character focused passages, Goodis is adept at flowing descriptive passages that bleed atmosphere and tone:

If it wasn’t opium it was hemp, and they had a way of treating it to make it extra-powerful, lifting the smoker very high above the earth, allowing him to soar up there with all the great ones, all the famous singers and dancers, all the champions and leaders. This special hemp they sold along Morgan’s Alley was a very pleasant habit when it was available. When it was not available, the loss of altitude was sudden, a sort of plunging, and so finally they had to take it all the way and jump off a pier. Or sometimes they ignited themselves with matches. Another popular method was wrapping a cloth very tightly around the head to cover the nose and mouth so one couldn’t breathe. It was the only thing to do when the hemp was not available to a user. (p. 205-6)

Make no mistake and never doubt it, The Wounded and the Slain is a miserable read. There is nothing romantic or idealized here, just ramshackle poverty and loveless life, senseless violence and misapprehended men. It’s not clear if Goodis’s protagonists have a chance of redemption at the end, but what’s never in doubt is that their lives up to those final pages were a frigid, multicolored hell and that there’s a very good chance that that’s all that there is.

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