Noir tale is vivid against bleak landscape

Times Staff Writer

DAVID GOODIS is the quintessential hard-boiled writer, someone for whom noir was not just an aesthetic but a way of life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1917, graduated from Temple University with literary aspirations and published his first novel, “Retreat From Oblivion,” when he was 22. From there, however, his career was a series of setbacks and disappointments, near-misses and never-weres.

His biggest success came in 1946 with the thriller “Dark Passage,” which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This led to a screenwriting contract at Warner Bros., but Goodis never did much in Hollywood, returning to Philadelphia in 1950. With the release of “Cassidy’s Girl” the following fall, he became king of the paperback originals, publishing 11 novels in the next six years. These books are remarkable for the consistency of their vision, the loneliness and disappointment with which they frame the world.

Again and again, Goodis writes of artists or professionals who have betrayed themselves, ruined by whiskey, women or their own character flaws. In many ways, the story is his. Although he enjoyed periodic flashes of recognition -- his 1956 novel “Down There” inspired Francois Truffaut’s film “Shoot the Piano Player” -- Goodis essentially remained anonymous, churning out pulp fiction that sold quickly and just as quickly went out of print. Depressed and alienated, he died in 1967, of complications from cirrhosis, at age 49. He remains a cult figure, his books sporadically available and not widely read.


Newly reissued, “Black Friday” is Goodis’ 12th novel, originally published in 1954. To be honest, it’s not his best book; that honor probably belongs to either of the two novels that preceded it, “The Moon in the Gutter” and “The Blonde on the Street Corner,” or the bleak and unrelenting “Down There.” Still, it is a vivid effort, not least because of its compact vision and the way that Goodis touches on nearly every theme that marks his work.

The main character is Hart, a painter on the run from family tragedy, who returns to Philadelphia (he’s a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania) only to fall in with a criminal gang. To survive, he must pretend that he is one of them; his life depends on not being found out.

Complicating matters are two women, the tough and domineering Frieda, with whom he sleeps, and the quiet Myrna, whom he loves. This is a typical Goodis triangle -- the male protagonist caught between two very different women -- but here it is exacerbated by the claustrophobic nature of the book. Virtually all the action unfolds in a row house, during a freezing week in January, as the gang grows edgy in such tight quarters and in anticipation of a score.

The tension is so overt that it’s almost physical, especially for Hart. “He wondered why he wasn’t sick,” Goodis writes. “He thought maybe he was beginning to get tough. He told himself it didn’t really make any difference, because he didn’t give a hang, but underneath he knew he did give a hang and it made a lot of difference and no matter what he kept telling himself he was really afraid of what was happening inside him.” The idea of a character watching himself harden and yet unable to stop it is classic Goodis; for him, existence is not so much something to be directed as to be endured. Events come upon us and we yield to them; the only choices are bad ones, and no one ever wins.

There’s a temptation to see this as a reaction to his life, which, if his work is any indication, was a source of disenchantment and despair. But his fiction speaks to a deeper existential desperation, an essential disconnection from the world. It’s no coincidence that Goodis’ novels take place almost entirely in Philadelphia, an old city, a cold city, a city of crumbling streets and broken promises, where the past encircles his characters like a noose. “If we gotta blame something,” gang leader Charlie tells Hart and Frieda, “let’s blame it on the climate. We got a weird climate here in Philadelphia.”

Here we have a definitive territory of alienation, in which there are no codes, no larger community and everyone is on his or her own. Even when we find a place -- a home, a family -- it’s a matter of convenience, or worse, another trap. This is what the gang represents: a strange kind of family, in which the price Hart pays for shelter is the subjugation of himself. And yet, the self always emerges, although when it does, we’re not necessarily better off. “So this is the way it usually happens,” Hart reflects. “It doesn’t need a Frieda to spill the beans. Sooner or later we do it ourselves, we give ourselves away.”


“Black Friday” has been in and out of print over the years, but in this edition it is accompanied by 12 stories Goodis wrote for such pulp magazines as Manhunt and New Detective in the 1940s and 1950s. That’s significant because, although Goodis produced millions of words for the pulps (under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms), almost none of this work has been reprinted before.

There is, to be sure, a reason for that: If Goodis’ paperback novels were regarded as disposable, many of these stories are even more so, quickie toss-offs done for money, with little of the dimension necessary to explore his larger themes. This is especially true of the earliest material, which is almost entirely formulaic, shoot-’em-ups and murder mysteries, in which noir is little more than a pose.

The later stories, from the same period as “Black Friday,” are much better -- taut, neatly constructed, somewhat more nuanced, the efforts of a craftsman at the top of his game. Still, with the exception of “Black Pudding,” a neat tale of revenge and redemption, they don’t rise to the level of his novels, which remain among the finest hard-boiled fiction ever produced.

Perhaps the fundamental difference is that even at their best, these stories illustrate the limitations of the genre, whereas Goodis’ novels transcend the form. They represent noir at its purest, a cry of desolation in the face of an apathetic universe, a tarnished elegy for the soul.

Such a vision defines “Black Friday,” the idea that there is nothing that can save us in the end. Or, as Goodis puts it: “He was walking very slowly, not feeling the bite of the cold wind, not feeling anything. And later, turning the street corners, he didn’t bother to look at the street signs. He had no idea where he was going and he didn’t care.”


David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.