The most striking example of Goodis’s distaste for neat endings comes in The Moon in the Gutter, the story of a stevedore’s quest to find his sister’s killer. The stevedore, Kerrigan, suspects that she was killed by a young rich alcoholic, who has recently taken to slumming in Kerrigan’s neighborhood. But soon Kerrigan meets the alcoholic’s own sister, a beautiful blonde, and he falls for her. It is, once again, a classic noir premise, with high stakes and a range of dramatic possibilities. Is the blonde seducing Kerrigan in order to protect her brother? Even if her romantic interest in Kerrigan is sincere, will she betray her brother? And will the rich blonde whisk Kerrigan away, once and for all, from Skid Row? Yet by the end of the novel Goodis renders all of these questions moot. Kerrigan realizes that the alcoholic is innocent after all, and decides that the blonde is too good for him. The murder goes unsolved. Kerrigan is left back where he started. Nothing has changed, and it is clear that nothing ever will change. He can only direct his anger at the street, the slum, the gutter. At fate, in other words.
It may come as a surprise that Goodis’s novels, despite their grimness, are rarely depressing. In part this can be credited to his skills as a pulp novelist—specifically his precise command of narrative pace and his dark sense of humor. He always seems to take a particular delight in describing quarrels between hostile lovers:
“You married me,” Madge said. “You’re still married to me. Don’t forget that.”
“How can I forget it?” Bob said. “You see these lines on my face? They’re anniversary presents.”
But the main reason for the novels’ mesmerizing power—the reason they don’t make you just want to stop the whole business—is that his characters are not genuinely cynical. Deep down each possesses a pitiful innocence that, at times, borders on idealism. His characters have learned, from past disappointments, how to harden themselves for protection—“the street is no place for softies”—but privately they nurse a secret desire to escape. (This is in marked contrast to Jim Thompson, whose prose is closer to John Wayne Gacy than James M. Cain.) Vincent Parry, for instance, fantasizes about moving to Patavilca, a beach town in Peru. In Nightfall, Vanning, another man on the run, admits in his loneliest moments that
he was missing out on the one thing he wanted above all else, a woman to love, a woman with whom he could make a home. A home. And children. He almost wept when he thought about it….
And in The Burglar, Nathaniel Harbin is determined to give his mentor’s daughter the chance at a better life, even if it means sacrificing his own.
The drama in Goodis’s fiction derives from the tension between these bursts of hopefulness and the presiding atmosphere of oppressive dread. It is believable that his heroes fantasize about Peruvian beaches or suburban homes stocked with six kids, just as it is believable when they end up, like Whitey in Street of No Return, back in the same gutter, a bottle of whiskey in hand, sinking blissfully into a mindless drunk.
Goodis himself lived a divided life. He was briefly married once, very unhappily; he never spoke of his wife again. After his six years in Los Angeles, Goodis returned to Philadelphia and moved back in with his mother and his younger brother, who suffered from schizophrenia. Goodis had a childish sense of humor. He’d stuff the red cellophane wrapper of a cigarette package into his nostril and pretend he had a bloody nose; when he went through a revolving door he’d scream loudly, as if he were being dismembered. By day he worked on his typewriter in his childhood bedroom and cared for his brother; at night he haunted billiard halls and dive bars in the seedier corners of town—Port Richmond, Southwark, and the docks, locations that appear in many of his novels. He sought out the company of large African-American women and liked to be humiliated by them.
Though he was a small man—five foot seven and a hundred and forty-five pounds—he often picked fights. In 1966, after leaving Linton’s Restaurant on North Broad Street, he was beaten by a mugger when he refused to hand over his wallet. The incident left him frail, with a chronically bloodshot eye. He dropped dead not long afterward, while shoveling snow. It was never confirmed whether his death was connected to his beating. The coroner called it a “cerebral vascular accident.” He was forty-nine.
His novels, despite being the source of numerous films, including François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, soon fell out of circulation. Until Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard Press reissued them in the Eighties—with an introduction by Geoffrey O’Brien, now the editor in chief of Library of America—they only remained in print in France, where they were published by Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint. This impressive new volume is an uncharacteristically cheerful coda to David Goodis’s legacy. It will allow future generations to plunge into the luxurious sensation one experiences when reading a Goodis novel, even though it never lasts for long, and is accompanied by the dismal knowledge that it will soon be over.