Customer Reviews: David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America)
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on November 22, 2012
Library of America chose this writer, David Goodis, for a volume of 5 noir novels from the 1940s and 50s. Goodis was prolific in the pulp genre, under his own name and under various pseudonyms. I thought I had never heard of him, but I was wrong. He wrote the novel on which Truffaut's film about not shooting the piano player was based. That is included in another LoA volume, an earlier noir sampler.
All the novels assembled here were filmed, all with big stars, but none of the films was a big hit.

`Dark Passage' was filmed with Bogie & Bacall. The story is an anticipation of the Fugitive (the author actually sued the TV producer, and won the case posthumously. His estate settled for a small compensation), an archetype of crime fiction. That guarantees some suspense with minimal effort. The hero is jailed for killing his wife. IHe didn't do it. He escapes from St. Quentin and meets all kinds of people on the run. The killer of the wife gets disclosed in the process. As experienced crime consumers we have a hunch soon enough.
We realize after a while that the key to the plot is the hero's problem with women. All women seem to bully him or try to boss him around, even the good girl appears threatening to him.

`Nightfall' is a similar plot: innocent man gets entangled in major crime by sheer accident (literally: the bad guys have a road accident and the good guy comes along and wants to help) and struggles to disentangle himself. It was filmed with Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. Suspenseful and with brilliant dialogues, but, like the Dark Passage, it suffers a little from excessive explanations. People in real life do not really have this urge of explaining.

`The Burglar' is about a career criminal with emotions and loyalty. That can cause problems and it does so big time. A heist has gone half bad in the sense that the gang carried it out, but has been watched and now somebody wants to snatch the haul. The leader finds himself torn between two women and things go the wrong way. Filmed with Jayne Mansfield, which is a good reason to look for it. Some have said this is Goodis' best novel. I didn't think it is all that great. While the hero's indecisiveness is quite realistic, his double romance is a bit overdone and implausible in its desperateness.

`The Moon in the Gutter' is the story of a dock worker in Philadelphia who grieves for his younger sister. She committed suicide after being raped. He tries to find explanations and the culprit. In the process he meets an uptown girl and gets distracted. Filmed in France, transposed to Marseille, with Gérard Dépardieu and Nasstasja Kinski (a strong reason to look for this film). Not successful though. I like this one least of the 5 novels in the volume. The people are not interesting, and the mystery element is not enough in the foreground.

By contrast, I like `Street of No Return' best of the 5. It is about a bum who gets dragged into race riots in Hellhole. He is wrongly arrested for killing a policeman in the street. He has a lost past as a successful singer, but `lost' his voice over a woman who was involved with gangsters.
This was filmed 30 years after publication with Keith Carradine.
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I first read David Goodis in the two-volume Library of America set of 11 noir novels written from the 1930's -- 1950's. The second volume of the set included Goodis' 1956 novel, "Down There" which because the basis of Francois Truffaut's 1960 film, "Shoot the Piano Player". I needed to know more of Goodis. Fortunately, the Library of America had recently published this volume devoted entirely to Goodis and including five novels he wrote in the 1940's and 1950's. Robert Polito, a noted scholar of noir who prepared the earlier LOA volumes, edited this volume of Goodis' novels. I have read and reviewed each of the five novels individually with links provided at the end of this review. It has been a long time since I have been so taken with the works of a writer new to me.

An enigmatic person and writer, Goodis (1917 -- 1967) was born in Philadelphia to middle-class Jewish parents and graduated from Temple University. He published his first novel at the age of 22 and spent several years producing a large quantity of words for pulp magazines and learning the craft of a writer. In the mid 1940's, Goodis moved to Hollywood, had a short unhappy marriage, and wrote further novels. Then, in 1950 he returned to Philadelphia where he lived with his parents and did the remainder of his writing. The novels he wrote in Hollywood were published in hardcover while the many novels he wrote in Philadelphia were published in cheap paperback editions with lurid covers and were probably deemed to have no lasting value. Goodis did most of his writing between 1951-- 1961. In 1966, Goodis was mugged, and he died the following year with no surviving family.

The background in pulp magazines and in screenwriting is apparent throughout this volume of Goodis' writings. Each of these books has its share of raw violence, fighting, murders, and robberies. Goodis seems to write with the screen not far from mind, as each of the five books in this volume became a noir movie (four in the United States and one in France.) But it would be a mistake to think that the background in pulp, cheap fiction, and Hollywood gives an adequate portrayal of Goodis.

The author has acquired the nickname of "poet of the losers" (A loosely similar writer, Charles Bukowski has acquired the nickname "poet of Skid Row")and it is deserved. Crime, and plot, are at best secondary elements in Goodis' writings. The novels are largely internalized and introspective. Goodis writes about lonely failures, people who are isolated and who seem never to receive a break in life. Several of the books center on a character who is falsely accused of a crime. The characters in his book have little, and they tend to be searching for love and for other forms of human connection. In these novels, love happens to the characters in a moment. It tends to be irresitable and to drive the protagonists forever after. The passions are lasting but they seldom if ever end well. Goodis' books each include many characters for short novels. The protagonists and the secondary characters are sharply drawn, and they tend to illustrate many sides of a single pessimistic view of the human condition.

Besides emphasizing lonely and lost people, Goodis' novels display a strong sense of atmosphere and place. Goodis writes in the short hard-boiled sentences of noir fiction, but the writing is rhythmic and lyrical, with a painter's eye for detail. Of the works in this volume, one novel is set in San Francisco, one primarily in New York City and three in Philadelphia. In each book, he captures a sense of the streets, neighborhoods, bars, alleys, and people that is readily identifiable to the place and not readily transferable. There are also scenes of cold lonely nights, endless walking on city streets, lonely city rooms, busy crowded but empty streets that Goodis finds characteristic of modern urban life.

The first two novels in this volume, "Dark Passage" and "Nightfall" date from the 1940's. They tend to be slightly more optimistic than the novels written in Philadelphia. "Dark Passage" tells the story of a relatively ordinary man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife who subsequently escapes from San Quentin and has an operation on his face to avoid detection and capture. The primary character, Vincent Parry, never loses his determination to better his condition.

"Nightfall" was Goodis' most successful book during his lifetime. It tells the story of a commercial artist and WW II veteran who through circumstance is wrongly suspected of participating in a bank robbery and of hiding the $300,000 heist. In a story told from at least three different perspectives, the protagonist Jim Vanning struggles to clear himself and to find a home and a woman to love.

The three subsequent novels in this volume date from Goodis' years in Philadelphia and are much darker and pessimistic in tone than the two prior works. "The Burglar" is an exploration of love and loyalty. When the main character, Nat Harbin, falls for a femme fatale named Della, the cohesiveness of the gang of thieves which he heads is severely tested. Harbin must weigh his infatuation against the good of the family group and against his relationship to a young woman, Gladden.

My favorite novel in this collecion was "The Moon in the Gutter", set in a hopelessly unredeemable Philadelphia slum. The novel portrays Philadelphia low life as well as the city's docks and wharves. The novel conveys a sense of sadness and loneliness, and of failed love across social divisions. The main character, William Kerrigan, engages in a search for a man who had violated his younger sister, leading to her suicide.

The final novel, "Street of No Return" portrays two different Philadelphia neighborhoods: the Skid Row and an adjacent community called Helltown which is experiencing violence and racial conflict. The book explores the character of Eugene Lindell, who has lost the chance of a successful career as a popular singer through his love of a woman with criminal connections and who has become a lonely alcoholic drifting through Skid Row.

Goodis' books are much more sad, poetical reflections on lonely lives and places than formulaic noir stories of violence. American experience and American literature are broad enough for many kinds of writing. I was moved greatly in my discovery of this author. Goodis' works deserve a place in the Library of America, which chronicles the breadth and diversity of America and its people.

Here are links to the individual volumes in this collection for interested readers.
Dark Passage (Film Ink Series)
The Dark Chase aka Nightfall
The Burglar (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
The Moon in the Gutter (Midnight Classics)
Street of No Return

Robin Friedman
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VINE VOICEon December 10, 2012
Like many other "hack" writers of the mid-twentieth century (such as Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson), David Goodis maintained a cult following, especially in France (for obscure reasons but they also venerate Jerry Lewis) long after their untimely deaths. Goodis has now been immortalized by the august "Library of America" Press, joining the pantheon of Accepted Writers. Does his work stand the test? That, of course, depends on the standard. They pass.

The five novels in this collection are all intensely topical, meaning that any reader can quickly pick by stylistic elements alone not only the nationality of the writer, the approximate era of the book but the likely publication venue (trash mag or hardback book) as well. All 5 novels share a penchant for the cheap pop Freudian psychology so popular at the time and many hoary elements of the "hard boiled" genre permeate the stories. The endings are mostly predictable as is the role of women, police, friends and acquaintances of the protagonist. The dialogue is shallow, the plots are mostly insipid and the characterization is flat. None of the sparkling dialogue of Chandler. None of the detailed plots of Hammett. Little of the unblemished evil of Thompson. Not so adroit with character development as Cain. The life of the "down and out" is much more cannily presented by Bukowski.

So, why bother? These are pretty good "snapshots" of the writing style that captivated so many readers at the time. They are a nice complement to some of the more popular practitioners of "noir" fiction and crime novels. They are much better written than many of the pulp writers unearthed by Otto Penzler in the "Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps". In short, they illustrate (as we expect from this style of fiction) to illustrate the fundamental gap between what we naturally expect (or fantasize about) from "good" people and what we really know about them...and that's not to expect anything good. The redeeming features of these books are that they make good films and they still deliver the ultimate punch: these novels represent the self-told lies for which we are truly punished (to paraphrase Naipaul)
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VINE VOICEon September 6, 2014
This is an amazing book. If you are already a fan of David Goodis, then you'll want this sturdy, handsome, archivally produced book in your collection. If you are new to the author, then this is the perfect place to start. This is dark, dark, stuff. Go for it.
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on December 19, 2015
Definitely readable but never superlative. Original, interesting stories but the writing is workmanlike, not brilliant. And all the stories tend to get bogged down in some lengthy sections of non-productive, not very snappy or colorful dialogue. Nonetheless, I read all five books in succession and would have read more, had there been more. Not sure this isn't overpriced though.
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on July 9, 2015
My favorite film genre made this anthology a must for me. I'd read Goodis and seen the classic Bogart-Bacall film, Dark Passage. But the novels that followed it were every bit as good. The volume was well over 900 pages, but well worth the time and effort. There is just something about flawed human beings trying to survive in gritty, decaying urban settings; the only thing missing might be an Edward Hopper painting.
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on May 10, 2012
My goal was to read one novel and then put the volume aside. To parse them out, as it were. But after reading the first, I couldn't stop. I read all five in succession. Goodis drives the narrative with great storytelling, crisp dialogue and suspense driven plots. Plus, it's a great bargain to boot: five books for twenty bucks. If you love Noir, you'll love Goodis.
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on February 6, 2016
This collection is outstanding, but the stories contained within all tend to have a similar pessimistic outlook on life. The characters are mostly one-dimensional, but there are several more drawn out characters, and thus the reader gets a few twists. I will not recap the stories individually, but I will say that of the 5, my favorite is the first one, Dark Passage because I felt it had the most drawn out and developed relationships of any of them. I think overall Goodis' best novel is his famous Down There (or Shoot the Piano Player)Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s: The Killer Inside Me / The Talented Mr. Ripley / Pick-up / Down There / The Real Cool Killers (Library of America) (Vol 2), which I read on one of the previous American Library Collections, Crime Stories of the 1950s.

I would recommend Jim Thompson's Pop 1080,, and Night Has a Thousand Eyes, if you would like to consider more dark stories.
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on July 15, 2013
I bought this book because Goodis was frequently referred to in essays about noir fiction. I read the whole thing in 2 days. Some were better than others, but especially Dark Passage and The Burglar were my favorites. Now I understand why Goodis was such an influence on writers that followed.
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