Anyway, in the first piece written in 1745, Franklin, who it turns out, was both a bit of a raver and a humourist writes "Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress." Franklin argues that "marriage is the proper remedy," for "violent natural inclinations," but failing that, he advises the young man to get himself an old mistress rather than a young one, and these are his reasons:
Another piece in the pamphlet addresses the issue of farting and is signed "FART-HING." And that brings me to the question: was Franklin a member of the infamous Hellfire Club or was he in attendance, as some claim, as a spy?... The latter sounds a lot like someone I knew who was caught soliciting prostitutes. He had the misfortune to solicit an undercover policewoman by mistake and argued he was innocent as he was merely conducting research (A la David Goodis) about prostitutes for a term paper.
CANON FODDER Five of David Goodis's novels — originally published as cheap paperback originals — have now been collected in a volume from the prestigious Library of America.
You know, some people got no choiceAnd they can't never find a voiceTo talk with that they can even call their ownSo the first thing that they seeThat allows them the right to beWhy they follow it, you know, it's called bad luck._Lou Reed, "Street Hassle"
Because we live in a country that forever needs to be told to appreciate its native artists, Americans are in love with classification. Is this writer high or low? Are genre novels literature or entertainment? Which is why it's far more important for the critic to evoke than to classify, to let judgment arise from critical description and from what D.H. Lawrence called the account of a work's "effect on our sincere and vital emotions." That is the sort of judgment that understands both the importance of technique and why technique can be irrelevant, why uneven novels with purple passages or patches of slack narrative can be so affecting, and why the most immaculate literary precision can leave us cold. And it's that judgment that has to be applied to the work of David Goodis.
It's easy — too easy — to comment on the irony that Goodis (1917-1967), whose output from the '40s through the '50s came mostly in cheap paperback originals, is now receiving his own volume in the prestigious Library of America series. Embrace that irony and you're embracing the notion that the canon cannot make room for writers like Goodis. The implicit belief behind the existence of this volume, edited by Robert Polito — a fine poet and the biographer of another noir artist, Jim Thompson — is that good writing is good writing.
And yet, trying to explain Goodis to someone who has never read him, or even to talk about him with someone who has sunk into one after another of these hallucinatory works, the question keeps nagging at you: what the hell kind of writer was he?
"Crime writer" is the off-the-rack description used by most critics to describe Goodis, and it's true that a crime is at the center of all the books collected in Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s. But the reader who turns to Goodis for the pleasure of watching a mystery solved or the mechanics of a police procedural may feel as if he's been cheated. To read Goodis is to slip into the most luxuriant of nightmares, to be trapped in a state of mind shared by the panic-stricken paranoid and the most masochistic of romantic fatalists. If you can imagine having an anxiety attack while slumped in your easy chair, sucking down cigarettes and whiskey and listening to Frank Sinatra sing "Deep in a Dream," you're close to imagining the experience of reading these novels.
That atmosphere made Goodis perfect for film noir, and each of the novels in this volume has been adapted. It also made him ripe for the kind of off-the-rails stylization of a director like Jean-Jacques Beineix, who adapted The Moon in the Gutter into an amazing disaster of a movie in 1983. The titles of Goodis's novels alone are enough to get you imaging your own noirs: Dark Passage, Nightfall, Street of No Return. And there are the titles of books not collected here: Down There (the basis for François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player), The Wounded and the Slain, Of Missing Persons, Somebody's Done For.
In a Goodis novel, somebody's always done for, whether they make it to the end of the book alive or not. Done for or given up. Some of the men here have slipped out of mainstream society. The innocent man convicted of murder in Dark Passage even escapes his own face, undergoing plastic surgery to dodge the cops; the commercial artist in Nightfall hides from the crooks who victimized him in a botched robbery and from the insurance investigator who think he was in on the job. Others want to slip out of existence itself. The Sinatra-like singer of Street of No Return, his throat crushed in a beating, holds himself separate from the already marginal life he's found on Philadelphia's skid row. His name, Whitey, refers as much to his spectral presence as to his prematurely white hair:
He looked at Whitey to see if Whitey was interested in the conversation. Whitey's face showed no interest at all. He wasn't even listening to the hectic noises coming from three blocks south. Whitey sat there gazing at the empty bottle set between Bones's legs, and Phillips wondered seriously whether the small white-haired man was completely in touch with the world. He decided to find out, and he tapped Whitey's shoulder and said, "You hear the commotion? You know what's going on?"
Whitey nodded. But aside from that there was no reaction and he went on looking at the empty bottle.
Only slightly more engaged is the Philly dock worker in The Moon in the Gutter (Philadelphia was the city Goodis knew best) who veers from the home where he supports the tatters of his family to the neighborhood dive bar inhabited by those even more miserable than him. But he's always drawn back to the alley where his sister cut her own throat after being raped. That months after the crime the dead woman's blood is still visible in the alley may seem like evidence of Goodis's indifference to the particulars of physical description. Or it can seem the perfect expression of how, in Goodis's work, the laws of the physical world have given way to the mental states of his protagonists:
At the edge of the alleyway facing Vernon Street, a gray cat waited for a large rat to emerge from its hiding place. The rat had scurried through a gap in the wall of the wooden shack, and the cat was inspecting all the narrow gaps and wondering how the rat had managed to squeeze itself in. In the sticky darkness of a July midnight the cat waited there for more than a half hour. As it walked away, it left its paw prints in the dried blood of a girl who had died here in the alley some seven months ago.
HAUNTING Capturing a dank atmosphere perfect for film noir, Goodis's novels have been adapted by the likes of Jean-Jacques Beineix and François Truffaut.
That a print can be left in dried blood suggests how sloppy Goodis can be. But we don't question it because we're immediately caught up in the morbid grief of Goodis's hero:
Then there was a sound of a man's footsteps coming slowly along Vernon Street. And presently the man entered the alley and stood motionless in the moonlight. He was looking down at the dried bloodstains.
The man's name was William Kerrigan and he was the brother of the girl who had died here in the alley. He never liked to visit this place and it was more on the order of a habit he wished he could break. Lately he'd been coming here night after night. He wondered what made him do it. At times he had the feeling it was vaguely connected with guilt, as though in some indirect way he'd failed to prevent her death. But in more rational moments he knew that his sister had died simply because she wanted to die. The bloodstains were caused by a rusty blade she'd used on her own throat.
At the beginning of Nightfall, Goodis describes the air of a New York summer night as "syrupy heat [that] refused to budge." He could be talking about the atmosphere of these books. None reaches 200 pages, but none is a fast read. You wade through the resigned torment of Goodis's men, conscious that at any moment the thick, obsessive mixture of fear and guilt might close over your head.
In Goodis, psychic architecture determines not only the physical world but narrative as well. If you just go by the plots, Goodis's books make no sense. They proceed less by consequence than by the vagaries of a guilty mind, though in only one of these five novels has the protagonist committed a crime. Goodis would have been lost if he'd had to produce the concrete detail which moves a procedural forward. The cops and crooks and thugs and jilted lovers who come after his wounded, haunted men seem to have been conjured up in the protagonists' own turbulent minds. At times, it's as if we are in the world of a science-fiction author who has realized a future where people are tracked by their own brain waves instead of fingerprints.
This is how we're introduced to Dave Vanning, the artist of Nightfall, contemplating New York in a heat wave, and the possibility of ever getting out of the fright that shadows him:
Heat came into the room and settled itself on Vanning. He lit a cigarette. He told himself it was time for another drink. Walking to the window, he told himself to get away from the idea of liquor. The heat was stronger than liquor.
He stood there at the window, looking out upon Greenwich Village, seeing the lights, hearing noises in the streets. He had a desire to be part of the noise. He wanted to get some of these lights, wanted to get in on that activity out there, where it was. He wanted to talk to somebody. He wanted to go out.
He was afraid to go out.
And he realized that. The realization brought on more fright. He rubbed his hands into his eyes and wondered what was making this night such a difficult thing. And suddenly he was telling himself that something was going to happen tonight.
It was more than a premonition. There was considerable reason for making the forecast. It had nothing to do with the night itself. It was a process of going back, and with his eyes closed he could see a progression of scenes that made him shiver without moving, swallow hard without swallowing anything.
The only comparable sense of isolation in American fiction contemporary to Goodis is that of Ralph Ellison's 1952 Invisible Man. But Goodis had no interest in the questions of identity that Ellison was pursuing. Much has been made of noir — on film and in novels — expressing the doubt of postwar America, rejecting the optimism and confidence that was the country's official view of itself, and though that's true, the truth of it depends on placing noir within a broader social context. Even in the isolation that noir trades in, Goodis's characters are more apart than any other writers'. The occasional names of American cities do nothing to ground these novels. The locations of the books are, at their least bleak, cities with recognizable places like restaurants and bars and apartment buildings. At their most despairing they are tenement neighborhoods and skid rows that seem to have been built chiefly to create shadows. The recurrent image is a solitary figure walking these alleyways and sidewalks, utterly separate from even the blighted lives going on inside. In most of the books, daylight might not exist. The characters are cut off from human contact, let alone notions like family, community, society, country. These are not the stylized urban nightscape of a '40s film noir as shot by John Alton. We're closer here to Godard's Alphaville, or a ghetto at the end of the world.
And we are very far from the cynicism and sardonicism that characterize much crime writing. Goodis's heroes are so far from wised up that you couldn't imagine them making a crack if their life depended on it. Most of the time, they are too tongue-tied, too resigned to doom to say anything to save their skin. If you're looking for the tough-guy snap of a pulp thriller, this is not the neighborhood to look in. With an atmosphere that's both rich and suffocating, explicating a state of the soul both romantic and utterly despairing, these novels are the work of the poète maudit of American letters.