If David Goodis is a novelist almost no one recognizes, it’s not hard to figure out why. He was an author who worked in a genre of fiction writing that was popular from the late 1930s to the early 1960s that’s somewhat difficult to classify. Not quite mystery, not quite thriller, these “noir novels” take on the sober work of describing the grubby reality of life.
Cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien says it well: “David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction … He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and small-time thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own.” The way O’Brien sums up Goodis: “He was a poet of the losers.”
O’Brien seems on target. Goodis’ 17 novels are filled with characters who epitomize the three Ds of disaster: Depressing, down-and-out, desperate souls who can’t ever seem catch a break. Many of them have experienced a fall from grace. Most have made wrong choices at seemingly every fork in the road.
Just consider some of the titles of the novels in the Goodis canon:
Street of No Return
The Moon in the Gutter
They tell the tale all by themselves.
As Brian McManus, a writer for Philadelphia Weekly magazine put it: “This is noir: a literary genre that does the sobering and thankless work of describing the life you’ve been dealt, not the one you wish you’d had.”
Several Goodis books were considered good enough to be made into screenplays, and one – Dark Passage starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart – made it to the big screen in 1947. But in some respects the Hollywood connection to David Goodis led to the author’s own downfall.
In fact, Goodis’ life almost reads like a character in one of his novels. He was born in 1917 and raised in a middle class section of Philadelphia. After graduating from Temple University with a degree in journalism, he began his career as an advertising copywriter with a Philadelphia ad agency while moonlighting as an author.
His first published book, Retreat from Oblivion, came out in 1939, following which Goodis moved to New York City to pursue a career in writing.
Goodis was soon active in the pulp fiction-writing business, penning as many as 10,000 words a day under numerous pseudonyms for periodicals like Dime Mystery Magazine. He also wrote scripts for radio serials such as Hop Harrigan and House of Mystery.
In a major coup, in 1946 Goodis’ novel Dark Passage was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and later came out in book form – the same work that would be produced by Warner Brothers as a film. This newfound success enabled Goodis to travel to California and try his luck at screenwriting.
And here’s where the trajectory of Goods’ life begins to turn downward. Fame and fortune were destined to slip through Goodis’ hands like so much sand. Not only was his screenwriting career wholly undistinguished, he found himself ill-suited to and socially awkward in Hollywood society. A short-lived California marriage to a transplanted Philadelphian would prove no more fulfilling.
By 1950, Goodis was back in Philadelphia, living with his parents and taking care of a younger brother diagnosed with schizophrenia. For the remaining 17 years of his life, Goodis would spend his days at home writing paperback originals for publishers like Gold Medal and Lion … and his evenings plumbing the depths of Philadelphia’s infamous Southwark skid row district that once ran along the banks of the Delaware River, in the truest “don’t ask, don’t tell” fashion.
If a Goodis novel seems to capture the realism of its bleak atmosphere with uncanny authenticity, it’s because Goodis actually “lived and breathed” that very atmosphere – nightly.
During the last few years of his life, Goodis was engaged in a legal challenge against the producers of the TV series The Fugitive, claiming that they had stolen the idea from his novel Dark Passage. His suit appears motivated, at least in part, to gain monetary compensation he would use to support his brother’s institutionalization (by then his parents had died). But the suit would drag on for years, long past Goodis’ own death.
In the “no hope left” school of living and writing, it would seem that Goodis had no peer. In fact, his own death could have been ripped from the pages of one of his novels: He died at age 49 from injuries sustained in a nighttime mugging that occurred outside a seedy diner in North Philadelphia.
Appropriately enough, his last novel, published posthumously, was titled Somebody’s Done For.
Within a few short years of his death, none of David Goodis’ books remained in print in the USA, and it seemed as if his name and legacy would be destined for the literary dustbin.
Except for one thing: France. As it turned out, Goodis’s noir novels took off like a rocket with French readers. Most of his books were translated, and their existentialist nature proved highly appealing.
Brian McManus believes that without the French connection, Goodis would have probably been forgotten forever. “They threw a giant croissant tied to a line into the abyss … and they fished him out. Plucked him from the obscure fate of so many pulp novelists of the past,” he writes.
In fact, famous French filmmakers like François Truffaut would adapt several Goodis novels for the screen.
And today, the circle is now complete. Goodis is finally getting his due here in his native land. Not only are many Goodis novels back in print, the author’s fame has taken on mild cult status.
There’s a David Goodis website devoted to his life and work. And the city of Philadelphia, whose bleak neighborhoods and seedy streets were the hardscrabble backdrop for nearly every Goodis novel, plays host to NoirCon, an annual gathering of genre fans that includes film screenings, lectures, literary awards, and “Goodisville” field tours of the city’s now-gentrified former skid row neighborhoods.
Should you wish to take the night train to Philadelphia, the next NoirCon event is scheduled for November 8-11, 2012.