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Dark Passages Through the Fifties
on May 1, 2012
The Library of America previously published multiple volumes by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as well as noir collections from the decades of the forties and fifties. David Goodis' novel Down There is included in the latter collection.
This book contains 5 other works by Goodis. What surprised me is that while the neighborhood and atmosphere in each of the entries is similar, there is significant variation in characters, plot and treatment; more so than I found in the volumes dedicated to Chandler and Hammett.
Moon in the Gutter is my favorite novel in the book. On the surface, the plot involves the search for revenge by a man whose sister has been raped. It is, more importantly, about the futility felt by William Kerrigan in trying to rise above his class. In the aftermath of meeting uptown girl Newton Channing, Goodis writes, "It struck him full force. the unavoidable knowledge that he was riding through life on fourth-class ticket." Kerrigan most fears the disdain that would be directed at him as he tries to pass among her friends: "It would show in their eyes, no matter how they tried to hide it." He considers how much happier he could be but concludes, "You better wise up to yourself and stay out of the clouds."
The plot drives relentlessly to its conclusion both in Kerrigan's search for revenge and in his romance with Channing. The story illustrates Dennis Lehane's characterization of noir as uniquely working class tragedy; stories of loss and of people unable to change. "No art form I know of rages against the machine more violently than noir," says Lehane.
In The Burglar, Goodis writes about a criminal gang as dysfunctional family. As the leader, Harbin is both thief and strong adherent of a moral code. "Aside from the stink of deceit and lies and the lousy taste of conniving and corruption, it was possible for a human being to live in this world and to be honorable within himself." The conflict between the the needs of his profession and his commitment to honor flavor the plot and, ultimately, lead to an ending.
Nightfall is the tale of an innocent artist who ends up being pursued by both criminals and the police as a result of trying to help people in a vehicle accident. This entry is a bleak story of solitary life among strangers in the city but is actually the most optimistic of Goodis' stories as it moves forward.
The action in Street of No Return occurs in just a few hours one night between the time a wino leaves to find a bottle and his return. There are some well told set pieces in the book including a near riot in a police station, an interrogation in a gang safe house and a beating in which the hero of the story seals his fate. Overall, though, this entry degenerates into a series of unlikely coincidences, an unsupported transition of a street person into action hero and an unlikely, and unsatisfying, conclusion.
The lead and longest story is Dark Passage. It is probably the best known as it was the basis of a Bogart/Bacall movie. The plot is about a man who is unjustly convicted of murder and his assumption of a new identity after plastic surgery. But it is more truly an evocation of urban fear and loneliness.
Each of these is a good read. Some can be completed in a day as it is difficult to break off in mid plot. The main characters are strong, if somewhat one dimensional. The secondary characters are often more interesting, as in a Dickens novel, the less they are described. What dominates all the stories, however, is the brooding and all pervasive presence of the city. Streets seem both quiet and full of menace while apartments provide little, warmth, solace or protection against the outside world. The atmosphere, as in most successful noir stories, remains the most important character.