David Goodis: Gritty Angel of Angst

13th Street North from Buttonwood St. March 24, 1959. John McWhorter, photographer (PhillyHistory.org)

How could David Goodis not have known John T. McIntyre, and envied his accomplishments as a writer?

Goodis was a journalism student at Temple in 1936, shooting for a writing career. McIntyre’s novel, Steps Going Down, published by Farrar and Rinehart that year, landed a top award in the All Nation’s Prize Novel Competition. If Goodis wasn’t contributing to The Owl, Temple’s student magazine, he would be working on his own novel, which would be published in 1939, shortly after his 23rd birthday. In Retreat from Oblivion, Goodis crafted an international tale of intrigue, love and war—drenched in alcohol. Its publication would propel his writing career from Philadelphia to Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side in New York, then onto Hollywood.

Actually, Goodis never completely left Philadelphia. In Hollywood he’d survive in part by couch surfing; when in Philly he’d return to his childhood bedroom in East Oak Lane. Within a few years, Goodis would come home for good. What drove him back? Goodis didn’t exactly take to California culture. Sure, Hollywood adapted his second novel, Dark Passage for a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but ditched his original ending for a happy one. Meanwhile, at home, Goodis’ new wife Elaine filed for divorce. Goodis wrote a revenge novel, Behold This Woman (1947) that was set—where else—in Philadelphia. “The book is raw,” declares davidgoodis.com. “Goodis’ pain is raw. His scars are unhealed. The novel oozes with resentment. Clara [his Elaine character] teases men. She manipulates men. She exploits men.”

Goodis had found his footing—even if he didn’t entirely know it at the time—writing Philadelphia Noir.

After wrapping up obligations out west, Goodis returned to Philadelphia full time in 1950 and makes the seamier side of his native city the subject of a dozen novels, finding inspiration in Philadelphia’s own distinctive noirscape: skid row, the waterfront; working class neighborhoods and dark, frigid, wind-blown streets. Goodis put out as many as 10,000 words per day and took gritty to new levels of literary despair.

Cassidy’s Girl, published by Gold Metal in 1951 (the year of McIntyre’s death) turned out to be Goodis’ proof of concept. This sodden tale of sympathetic losers living and drinking on the Delaware waterfront sold a million copies.

On the river side of Dock Street the big ships rocked gently on the black water like monstrous hens, fat and complacent in their roosts. Their lights twinkled and threw blobs of yellow on the cobbled street bordering the piers. Across Dock Street the stalls of the fish market were shuttered and dark, except for cracks of light from within, where purveyors of Delaware shad and Barnegat crab and clam and Ocean City flounder were preparing their merchandise for the early-morning trade. As Cassidy passed the fish market, a shutter opened and a mess of fish guts came sailing out, aimed at a large rubbish can. The fish guts missed and landed against Cassidy’s leg.

Cassidy moved toward the opened shutter and glowered at the fat, sweaty face above a white apron.

“You,” Cassidy said. “You look where you’re throwin’ things.”

“Aw, shut up,” the fish merchant said. He started to close the shutter. Cassidy grabbed the shutter and held it open. “Who you tellin’ to shut up?”

Another face appeared within the stall. Cassidy saw the two faces as a double-headed monstrosity. The two faces looked at each other and the fat face said, ‘It ain’t nothin’. Just that liquored-up bum, that Cassidy.”  

Hunting Park Avenue – Underpass. East of East River Drive., June 19, 1950. Charles J. Bender, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

The next year he put out more novels: Street of the Lost and Of Tender Sin. The year after that Moon in the Gutter and The Burglar, adapted to film starring Dan Duryea and Jane Mansfield.

He turned his back on her, moved to the cashier’s stand. He paid his check, left the restaurant and stood on the corner waiting for a cab. The night air had a thick softness and the smell of stale smoke from factories that had been busy in the day, and the smell of cheap whiskey and dead cigarettes and Philadelphia springtime. Then something else came into it and he breathed it in, and he knew the color of this perfume was tan. 

She stood behind him. “Usually I don’t gamble like this.” He faced her. “Where would you like to go?”

“Maybe someplace for a drink.”

“I don’t feel like a drink.”

“Tell me,” she said. “Are you hard to get along with?”

“No.”

“You think we can get along?”

“No.”

And then Down There, from 1956, begins with a classic Goodis scene of relentless despair and desolation:

There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they’d better find a heated cellar. The later November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened window’s, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.

The man was kneeling near the curb, breathing hard and spitting blood and wondering seriously if his skull was fractured. He’d been running blindly, his head down, so of course he hadn’t seen the telephone pole. He’d crashed into it face first, bound away and hit the cobblestones and wanted to call it a night.

But you can’t do that, he told himself. You gotta get up and keep running.

Filmmaker Francois Truffaut picked up Down There and produced Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) in 1960.  The setting shifted from Philadelphia to Paris, from Port Richmond to whatever the equivalent French quartier might be.

All good. Truffaut captured the feel—the existential texture—just right. And that’s what mattered most to readers and audiences not familiar with the authentic desperation known in Goodis’ Philadelphia.

[Sources: David Goodis and Robert Polito (editor) David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America: 2012); David Goodis, The Burglar, (originally published by Lion, 1953); David Goodis, Cassidy’s Girl, (originally published by Fawcett, 1951); David Goodis, Down There, (originally published by Gold Medal, 1956); David Goodis Internet Movie Database (IMDB); Dennis Miller, “Dark Journeys: The Best of Noir Fiction,Huffpost, THE BLOG, December 11, 2014, Updated Feb 10, 2015; Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell, Encyclopedia of Film Noir (ABC-CLIO, 2007), pp. 31-33.]

 

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2 Comments

  1. Lou Lescas
    Posted May 31, 2017 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    What a brief but interesting life, as he didn’t make 50. I could see him in my mind, hanging out at night in that 1959 photo. There’s something about night photos that are amazing- almost makes them look as if they have more DPI’s.

  2. Rob S
    Posted June 7, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks Ken, for all the great Noir articles! You have helped me add some books to my summer reading list.

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