Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s: Dark Passage, Nightfall, The Burglar, The Moon in the Gutter, Street of No Return
by David Goodis, edited by Robert Polito
Library of America, 804 pp., $35.00
Dark Passage, Nightfall, Black Friday, The Moon in the Gutter, Street of the Lost, Street of No Return: judging by titles alone, a reader might not expect much sunshine from the novels of David Goodis. But it’s not quite accurate to describe these novels as gloomy. There is gloomy, melancholy, and bleak, and then, several leagues below despondent, there is Goodis:
As matters stood, life offered very little aside from an occasional plunge into luxurious sensation, which never lasted for long and even while it happened it was accompanied by the dismal knowledge that it would soon be over.
The speaker of this line, a man named Gerald Gladden, happens to be one of Goodis’s most cheerful characters. Gladden is a career thief, and a venerated presence in The Burglar, the most stunning of the five novels collected by Robert Polito, the editor of this new edition. Unlike many of Goodis’s miserable souls, Gladden actually believes that life has meaning. The main thing to realize, says Gladden, is that
every animal, including the human being, is a criminal, and every move in life is a part of the vast process of crime…. The basic and primary moves in life amounted to nothing more than this business of taking, to take it and get away with it. A fish stole the eggs of another fish. A bird robbed another bird’s nest. Among the gorillas, the clever thief became the king of the tribe. Among men… the princes and kings and tycoons were the successful thieves, either big strong thieves or suave soft-spoken thieves who moved in from the rear. But thieves,…all thieves, and more power to them if they could get away with it.
Goodis is a crime novelist, but only in the way that Herman Melville is a nautical novelist and Cormac McCarthy is a writer of westerns. In Goodis’s novels, crime is philosophy. The name for his kind of philosophy is nihilism.
Most of his characters don’t have such a finely developed sense of honor as Gladden. The hero of a Goodis novel—and they are all but interchangeable—tends to be overwhelmed by fear and loneliness. He is hardened by prison, a bad marriage, or life on the street. (As a prostitute in The Moon in the Gutter says, “This street is no place for softies.”) He realizes, with a sudden jolt of nausea, that he is “riding through life on a fourth-class ticket,” that he’s “trapped” or “doomed” and sooner or later he’ll be “mauled and battered and crushed.” His hair is “drab,” he has “the kind of lips not made for smiling,” and, in at least two of the novels, he is “five seven and a hundred and forty-five.” He haunts neighborhoods with names like “Hellhole,” living in “the kind of room where every timepiece seemed to run slower.” Even his …