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Essays

David Goodis and the Intermittent Noir Revival

The cruel tableau of dark shadows, femme fatales and hard men conjured by the word "noir" has become a cliche, the stuff of countless books, movies and television commercials, an easy mark, parodied as often as it's played straight. But the original goods still have the power to shock and move, as anyone who has ever read James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice can attest.

Cain, Chandler and Hammett all reside comfortably in the mainstream literary pantheon these days, three crime authors that even the most highbrow academic can safely be caught reading. But the true noir afficionado craves a more bitter brew, with darker shadows, more fatale femmes and harder men. Publication and appreciation of the more obscure practitioners seems to be cyclical, an important upturn coming in the eighties with the founding of Black Lizard books, an independent publisher dedicated to the then almost forgotten pulp writers of the forties and fifties. Black Lizard's editor Barry Gifford almost singlehandedly preserved the work of these men, some of whose books were so scarce that for a time he thought he was going to have to translate them from French (a language where they'd remained steadily in print) back into their original English in order to republish them. Authors like Jim Thompson and David Goodis, both of whom are now enshrined in the ultimate embrace of the literary establishment, a thirty-five dollar Library of America edition, would be largely unknown today if not for Gifford.

But, unfortunately, in America independence is more popular in theory than practice, and this noble, pioneering effort only survived for a short time. When its parent company went bankrupt, the Black Lizard name was sold to corporate conglomerate Random House and the noir eclipse began again. Because of the recent movies made from his books and his rather more straightforward twistedness, the new bosses kept Jim Thompson in print, eventually bringing out even his most obscure works, while letting David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Paul Cain, Frederic Brown and the rest of the gang disappear from bookstores. The original Black Lizard mission was abandoned in favor of stamping the label on disparate contemporary writers like Ruth Rendell and Andrew Vachss.

For me the most egregious loss was the works of Goodis - Random House has kept only one of his books, Shoot the Piano Player, in print, probably because of Truffaut's marvelous film. Fortunately, a number of heroic, smaller publishers have stepped into the breach, and thanks to several recent re-issues I've been on a Goodis binge lately, immensely enjoying his characters' long torments and hollow victories.

Hard Case Crime is an imprint of New York's Dorchester publishing, and while you've got to give them credit for bringing out superior vintage pulp like Day Keene's Home is the Sailor, it seems to me that they're trying a little too hard to be the new Black Lizard, and their publication of modern pastiche like Stephen King's execrable The Colorado Kid (in his after word King says most people will either love or hate it and he's half right) hasn't filled me with the enthusiasm for Hard Case that some of my noir friends exhibit. They should be commended for bringing the world Goodis's The Wounded and the Slain for the first time in fifty years, and it was a treat to finally read it, but at the same time it's far from his best work, facile Freudianism and clumsy Jamaican dialect tempering the usual Goodis goodies.

To me an outfit called Millipede Press out of Lakewood, Colorado better embodies the old Black Lizard, exhibiting more vision and less calculation in their inspired genre straddling line of novels of terror and madness. Certainly they're spot on in their Goodis reprints. Nightfall is a relatively early book, a riff on the more famous Dark Passage, full of trademark elements like a missing fortune, an ambiguous woman and a decent guy with an ugly, inescapable past. It's elegantly done and vintage Goodis, but Millepede's other title, Street of no Return, is the best of the bunch. It's a circular tour through hell, the story of a skid row bum known as Whitey who one day recognizes a sinister figure and decides to follow him, initiating a series of events that reveal his tortured, secret past, land him in the middle of a race riot, grant him a tantalizing glimpse at redemption, and then dump him back on skid row, bottle in hand.

Although I usually mistrust such comparisons, Geoffrey O'Brien's comment that "...if Jack Kerouac had written crime novels, they might have sounded a bit like this," seems to me to have a lot of truth in it, as Goodis shares Kerouac's lyric yet conversational prose, subterranean cast and essentially tragic vision. As the Hollywood noir movies were directly and indirectly informed by European Expressionism colliding with American realism, so Goodis's work presents a gallery of tormented characters whose screams, bitter laughter and sexual conflicts are a mixture of Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper:

That first time you saw her, the way it hit you. And the way it's been coming back tonight, hitting you, hitting you. All right, for Christ's sake, cut it out. But I wonder if Firpo is still alive and sometimes at night he wakes up and remembers the way Dempsey hit him.

Goodis wasn't really a mystery writer, but a crime novelist as strong and individual as America has ever produced, and, for the moment anyway, we're lucky enough to have a new selection of his work. Get ‘em before they fade back into the shadows - noir has a way of doing that. (Jamie)

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