Friday, August 10, 2018

David Goodis Didn’t Choose Pulp; It Chose Him: Guest post by Jay A. Gertzman

David Goodis Didn’t Choose Pulp; It Chose Him

David Goodis was enraptured by pulp fiction. It said, “Come here, kid, I’ve got what you know you want.” He could write about the dispossessed and the outlaws of post-war America, what caused their degradation, and their white-knuckled perseverance. Hard choices appeared like snarling opponents; they required disguise and degradation but might result in an eye-opening strength. Styling himself a “mere entertainer,” Goodis could include violence and sexual dysfunction in his newsstand throwaways to an extent a mainstream publisher would reject as “coarse.” Best of all, he could work alone, telling a universal story and maintaining a large audience. His friend Paul Wendkos, director of the film version of his The Burglar, asserted that “he could write like no one else. Thus, the title of my book: Pulp, According to David Goodis.

Here is what happens to three of Goodis’ protagonists. Eddie, formerly Edward Webster Lynn, concert pianist, lost his temper just for a second, and lost his wife. Nevertheless, he attracts another soul mate. Striving to protect her, he finds that Fate can strike twice (Shoot the Piano Player). Whitey, formerly Eugene Lindell, star crooner, loves Celia even more than his singing. She is the girlfriend of Sharkey, a mobster, who takes her with him and also, with a knife to the throat, destroys Lindell’s vocal cords. Lindell becomes Whitey, skid row alcoholic (Street of No Return). Nat Harbin, formerly an anonymous street kid, is given a name by the man who takes him in and makes him part of his family. He loved that benefactor like a father. Therefore, Nat chooses not to reciprocate the love of the daughter of his rescuer, because he was so avid about being part of the family that he convinced himself the desire was incestuous (The Burglar).

Lost identity is one of David Goodis’ obsessions in his mass-market pulp crime novels. It loomed behind the Big Fear that energized post-war life. Anyone could become a loser at a time when urban neighborhoods became poorer due to suburbanization. Fear of The Bomb, the Red Menace, juvenile crime, decline in the effectiveness of labor unions, and race riots were everyone’s problems. Sales of the crime thriller had a lot to do with the skill with which writers and readers think about identity: “I’m glad I’m not [the protagonist],” and at the same time, “I wish I was him or her.” That formula was inevitable. It forced readers to involve themselves--on a very personal level--in the story, and to think about who they were and how they got that way. It’s a chief reason why the American pulp crime novel became an important, and much imitated, American art form.

In important ways, the Goodis protagonist gains in sense of self as a result of losing reputation or community status. Eddie, Whitey, and Nat are successful at bringing relief to those around them. But their very decency and embrace of obligations cripples as well as ennobles them. Their hard-won self-definition is only partially accurate. Some continue to be enslaved by compulsions to repeat what had hurt them. Others maintain a stoic dignity. Eddie, Whitey, and Nat are noble losers. Their awareness of who they are is so painfully lucid as to be a spiritual commitment. It is essentially Kafkaesque. Ironically, there is no God in Goodis, so the spirituality is coldly existential. They chose to be outcasts without a single spark of belief in anything beatific. That makes their perseverance heroic and futile at the same time. This is why, in France, Goodis’ novels were immediately popular and have never been out of print.

Goodis is the master of Philadelphia gothic. Its streets of no return—but also of self-discovery following loss of loved ones and bodily disfigurement—“glitter and glisten” like a “snake.” A “yellow green” moon looks down on poverty and abandonment in the gutters of Skid Row, Southwark, or South Philly. “No matter where the weaker ones were hiding, they could not get away from the Vernon Street moon.” The Delaware River, where “Big ships rocked gently like monstrous hens,” impassively sweeps by the chaos of the Dock Street Market or the planned “blight” of Port Richmond and Kensington, whose remaining citizens share a camaraderie the creature comforts of suburbia lack. Over these locations racketeers, prostitutes, thugs, factory workers, alcoholics, and noble losers can see the distant bulk of City Hall, from which help never comes, only regulations made in bad faith.

Goodis has a preoccupation with themes of brother-sister incest. They appear as a major plot stimulus in four works. They give him a chance to reveal the desperation of people who do not dare to examine their psychosexual desires and the nuclear family dynamics that nurtured them.

Goodis’ final novel is set on edge of South Jersey’s Delaware Bay. The isolated setting of water, cloud, and marsh is ideal, as is the writer’s Philly gothic settings, for testing resolve and perseverance to the point of death. The protagonist fears dying at 50, as did his father. The father’s cause of death was being “fed up with himself.” His son is a man of unshakeable, obsessive belief and is cursed with what seems to be surely a terminal futility. Like most of this writer’s heroes, he persists. That persistence is a mystery that heroes of great American novelists confront, with mysteriously spiritual, although in some ways self-destructive results.

Jay Gertzman’s Pulp According to David Goodis will be published by Down and Out Books in late October 2018. His interest in pulp crime is based on the reasons for the genre’s being considered subversive of established values by 1950s congressional committees investigating juvenile delinquency. Also key are the class snobbishness involved in the concept of “offensiveness,” and the absolute contrast between “literature” and popular entertainment (“masscult”). All this censoriousness gave talented writers the gift of freedom from conventions. Pulp, noir, and neo-noir fiction together comprise a prime American art form. Gertzman has published articles on Goodis in Paperback Parade, Crimespree magazine,, Alan Guthrie’s Noir Originals, and the programs of the Noircon conferences. His previous books include Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist and Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940.


Paul D. Marks said...

Really interesting piece. Goodis is one of my faves. Can't wait for the book to come out.

Lisa Ciarfella said...

Totally digging on this piece...
Noir chooses it's victims, not the other way round! And us authors who carry on it's writing style today are, like Goodis,it's doomed children!