Street of the Lostis as down and dirty as noir gets in its depiction of depressed, lost souls on the road to nowhere. No cynical, wise-cracking detectives here.Existential angstis too fancy for these characters—more like the depths of hopeless, day-in-day-out misery.
ButStreet of the Lostdoes offer its characters thepossibilityof redemption, of escape, and of truly explosive revenge. And it offers readers suspense and action, as well as a finely crafted setting of ugliness and depravity.
The protagonist, Chet Lawrence works as a freight yard welder and is married to a sad, lost woman named Edna.Chet also supports Edna’s shiftless, no-good father, brother, and sister-in-law.
But an equally central character is the Street itself—Ruxton, a street that traps residents into lives of crime, violence, drunkenness, drugs, and emptiness.
“The enemy was the Street.
For the Street was like those big snakes he’d seen once in the zoo. Everyone it touched, it swallowed.
The Street even looked like a snake. It’s head started at the freight yards past Eighth . . . its tail was the dead end at the wall of a warehouse.
And it glimmered and glistened like a snake. The Ruxton Street pavement was always wet with saliva and phlegm and urine and spilled wine and whiskey and homemade powerhouse. There was always dirty water in the gutters.
It was a street of wooden shacks and decaying tenements. Of broken windows and splintered doors. Of three poolrooms and four taprooms . . .”
Twenty years earlier, Lawrence had decided to detach from the Street and its troubles. Having grown up as a tough Ruxton “alley cat,” he once tried to break up a knife fight but got his gut badly slashed. That was when he vowed never again to get involved.
“He had it deeply planted in his mind that the street would never touch him. Yet planted equally deep was the knowledge that he couldn’t get away.”
Since then, except for a time in the Pacific during World War II, Lawrence trudges from his job to his bleak home, uninvolved and empty. At least the old Street life offered excitement, evil as it may have been.
Street of the Lostopens with an incident that may force an end to Lawrence’s detachment. As he walks home from work, he sees a Chinese girl lying in the filthy water of the Ruxton gutter, bloody, bruised, her skirt torn. Lawrence passes, but then turns and helps her up.
The girl thanks Lawrence but refuses to talk about what happened. He helps her on her way and continues home himself.
Lawrence doesn’t know that the girl was attacked by his old buddy Hagen—leader of the Ruxton mob. It’s not a powerful, organized mob—just made up of the “alley cats,” now into more serious crimes like prostitution, murder, rape, and drug dealing.
Hagen, the leader by intimidation, is a former boxer, five-nine, 250 pounds, with fists that can beat an opponent to death.
And Hagen soon tracks down Lawrence. A few hours after Lawrence’s encounter with the Chinese girl, he and Edna are at a diner called Sam’s.
Hagen enters and corners Lawrence, thinking he knows that Hagen attacked the girl. But Hagen—murderer, rapist, torturer—also feels solidarity with old street cats like Lawrence. He simply wants Lawrence to rejoin the organization and show that he is scared of Hagen. That’s the way to gain Hagen’s trust.
But here’s the twist: Lawrence doesn’t have it in him to act scared. For years, he’s held back his own temper—a temper that twice in his younger days caused him to fight entire gangs of hoodlums who attacked him, putting a few in the hospital. The reader gets a hint that Lawrence justmightbe a match for Hagen in a brawl.
Later, at a bar called Bertha’s, Lawrence learns of Hagen’s “feelings” for the Chinese girl as well as his plans to “court” her.
She’s like a flower, a Chinese lily . . . . Extra special, that’s what I call it. A thing I’ve wanted as long as I can remember . . .really high-class, top-notch material, small and slender and soft, smelling clean and pure like spring water, with a face like the kind they try to draw in books.”
Yet Hagen’s demented plan is to kidnap her and keep her prisoner, raping and torturing her. But he says:
“Maybe she’ll get used to me, get to like me, and really want to stay with me. I’ll do my best to go easy on her.”
Can Lawrence let this happen? Will he end his uninvolvement? Will he stand up against the kidnapping, rape, and torture of the Chinese girl—stand up to Hagen’s murderous rule of the Street? Or will he stay uninvolved and detached. That’s the core of the story.
But a gripping story is only part of Goodis’s mastery. Few writers do noir with Goodis’s dark, moody fluency. The readerlivesthis story of Ruxton Street through the author’s evocative prose. The readerfeelsthe hopelessness and desperation of the Street,drownsin Lawrence’s misery, anger and emptiness.
Goodis’s characters and settings are unforgettable.
The prostitute Tillie, is just one example:
“She stood there in the doorway, five feet six, 430 pounds, a shapeless boulder of flesh with the face of a cow and big ears that stood out almost at right angles to her skull . . .
“His eyes pretended to be fascinated by the mountain of female flesh, the famous massive torso that for all its flabby shapelessness was Ruxton Street’s most expensive candy. They came here constantly, the seekers of off-beat thrills. In terms of poundage she was the summit of their frenzied climb toward some uncanny kind of pleasure or conquest or whatever the hell it was they were looking for. But sometimes he’d see them walking out of this shack with an utterly beaten look on their faces, as if they’d arrived on the summit only to find that it was lower than any other level on the map of unrighteousness.”
And Goodis is unmatched for the emotion and precision of his fight scenes.
“He moved in and put all his power into a left to the midsection and he heard the grunt, the wheezing, and saw Hagen doubling up, elbows trying to protect his belly. He kept moving in, and hauled off with his right and told himself that this was going to be the finish. But just then Hagen grabbed again . . . ”
Goodis can even make death lyrical. In a scene later in the book:
“He pulled himself off the corpse and took out a handkerchief and stood there wiping the blood from his knuckles. Then he let the handkerchief fall onto the cot. It landed on the chest of the corpse. Some blood dripped off the edge of it and sprinkled the hand of the corpse, the red drops glimmering on the dark fingers that still seemed to be groping for the blackjack.”
Examples of Goodis’s genius are virtually endless. For anyone who can handle a dark, noir tale of hopeless lost souls—yet souls who long for escape and redemption—this book is truly one that is “great but forgotten.”
Definitely forgotten—for the most part.Street of the Lostis out of print and few copies are available. Amazon has none. The thirty or so copies available online range from $40 to $150, old musty versions that might break apart in your hands. There are a few copies in French, but it’s hard to imagine any translator equaling Goodis’s writing.Rue Barbare(dir. Gilles Béhat), an obscure, undistinguished 1984 French film is based onStreet of the Lost.
I’d like so much to share this noir classic, that I’d give up my copyfree(I’ll pay the postage) to anyone who wants to read it—as long as they promised to send it along to anyone else interested. Just contact me at Noir Journal. My copy is musty, scribbled in, underlined, and held together with a rubber band—but that doesn’t take away from the quality of this masterful work of noir.