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Shoot the Piano Player Paperback – October 3, 1990
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From the Inside Flap
Once upon a time Eddie played conert piano to reverent audiences at Carnegie Hall. Now he bangs out honky-tonk for drunks in a dive in Philadelphia. But then two people walk into Eddie's life--the first promising Eddie a future, the other dragging him back into a treacherous past.
Shoot the Piano Player is a bittersweet and nerve-racking exploration of different kinds of loyalty: the kind a man owes his family, no matter how bad that family is; the kind a man owes a woman; and, ultimately, the loyalty he owes himself. The result is a moody thriller that, like the best hard-boiled fiction, carries a moral depth charge.
About the Author
David Goodis (1917-1967), born in Philadelphia, was a screenwriter and author of crime fiction well known for his novel Dark Passage. He wrote the screenplay for Dark Passage which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. He had received a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University in 1938.
Top customer reviews
The writing is a little uneven in the first two chapters, and I almost put this one down, but I'm glad I stuck with it, as dark as it was. The dialog comes off as dated, which is OK, but one of the stranger things in this one is the sense of time. A guy walks 15 feet across a room to punch another guy, and in that time, there's twenty lines of dialog. The fight scenes are also very 1950's, with guys getting in boxing stances and trading hooks and jabs.
Underneath all that though is a very human story about some people who don't have the best lot in life and are not dealing all that well with the hand they've been dealt.
David Goodis writing in Shoot the Piano Player is exceptionally reflective. It takes you inside characters and their situations. It is written often in a inner-monologue format from Eddie's perspective, and this gets us closer to Eddie's constant self-critiquing.
Shoot the Piano Player also takes on the role of morality tale at points. It has a crime novel and noir-ish feel to it, but also is an introspective and detailed looked into a flawed main character. Goodis writes with a knack for the dramatic, the tragic and the comic all at once. The novel feels very existential; it makes one brood and think about how much the individual controls and governs their own existence, and we are thrust immediately into Eddie's internal thoughts from the get go when one of his no-good brothers, Turley, bursts into Harriet's Hut, running for cover. Eddie is seemingly in the middle between two worlds, the idealistic and romanticized one of Edward Lynn, child prodigy who eventually plays Carnegie Hall, and Eddie, the piano player at Harriet's Hut who has ties to brothers involved in past crime. Eddie distances himself from his rowdy brothers, tries to find a calling in life (as a piano player), but it seems as though fate intervenes and hampers many of these ideals. Eddie's inner turmoil is lyrically captured by Goodis' spot on prose:
"Why'd she have to bring it all back? You had it buried and were getting along fine and having such a high old time not caring about anything. And now this comes along. This hits you and sets a spark and before you know it there's a fire started. A what? You heard me, I said it's a fire. And here's a flash just came in--it's blazing too high and we can't put it out.
We can't? Check the facts, man, check the facts. This is Eddie here. And Eddie can't feel fire. Eddie can't feel anything."
Goodis effectively takes you into the brain of Eddie. Snapshots of Eddie's past, some hopeful, some tragic, put the pieces together for his new predicament. The back story and flashback aspects (especially of his childhood and his piano playing abilities) as well as Eddie's running internal monologue within himself help to create an insightful and complex picture of Eddie. There's a bit of young Hamlet in Eddie: he's seemingly forever at odds within himself, and has difficulty in making decisions. Often rather than taking action, he contemplates and wavers between two choices, always thinking.
Goodis also presents some strong secondary characters essential to the plot and themes. Lena, a waitress who works at Harriet's Hut with Eddie, is a strong character who tries to spark some life into Eddie. I found that many of the other secondary characters (Harriet, Feather, Clifton, the bouncer) were not only engaging and interesting, but played central roles in the unraveling of events.
The author also holds key developments and plot realizations until late in the novel to maximize the suspense. We understand why Eddie's brothers are being sought by the two men. Eddie, while brooding over where he's been and where he's going, finds himself in a quite a few conflicts.
Very impressive novel. Highly recommended for any crime fiction fans or noir fans.
I'm looking forward to reading more from Goodis.
Eddie grew up on a remote watermelon farm in South Jersey. His two older brothers became professional criminals. Eddie's salvation was the piano. A promising career as a concert pianist was interrupted by World War II, during which Eddie served in Burma with Merrill's Marauders and was wounded three times. Back in the States, Teresa, a Puerto Rican, brought him out of his shell. He married her. By unlikely happenstance he encountered a high-powered agent, who took Eddie under his wing and provided an entrée into the highly competitive classical music world, which Eddie took by storm, with concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Academy of Music. But then Eddie learned that the quid pro quo for the agent taking on his representation was periodic sack time with Teresa. Upon revealing that secret, she commits suicide and Eddie goes berserk. After three years on the streets in an emotional daze, he eventually drifted into a job as the piano player at Harriet's Hut, a working-class bar in the Port Richmond section of North Philadelphia.
David Goodis gives us that backstory in the middle of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Had he started with it, I don't think I would have continued reading the book. As it is, the book opens after Eddie had been at Harriet's Hut for four years, as the quiet, inscrutable piano player whose best friend is Clarice, a ditzy three-dollar whore. Eddie's brother Turley enters Harriet's Hut, looking for refuge from two thugs who are chasing him. Eddie is sucked into a maelstrom of violence and mayhem, in which he is paired with Leni, a tough worldly-wise waitress at Harriet's Hut who has developed a soft spot for Eddie. Eddie tries, vainly, to fend off emotional commitments to Leni and to extricate himself from the whirlpool. The story plays out in first-rate noir fashion, leaving the bodies of both the good and the bad in its wake.
Goodis probably concocted that implausible backstory in order to provide a psychological explanation for Eddie's character and his anomalous emotional response to Leni. But noir doesn't really require that its characters make psychological sense.
The novel originally was released in 1956 under the title "Down There". It was the basis for the François Truffaut's 1960 film "Shoot the Piano Player", which then was adopted as the title for succeeding editions of the novel.
SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER represents my introduction to David Goodis. Goodis was born in Philadelphia, lived there much of his life, died there in 1967, and set much of his fiction there. Perhaps because he depicts the underbelly of Philly, Goodis has not been celebrated as a noted Philadelphia author by the city's literary establishment. That might change with the recent decision by the Library of America to issue a volume containing five of his novels. I don't think I will commit to four more Goodis novels, but SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER was good enough that I intend to sample at least one or two more.