A Thin Line Between Poetry and Pulp: David Goodis’s Short Stories
I've been reading Goodis for over forty years but have only come across a handful of his short stories. This even though a few years ago I did manage to get through a French collection, only to conclude that it was a poor substitute for the original. Now, thanks to Serpent’s Tail, a volume of Goodis’s short fiction, Black Friday and Selected Stories, is finally available. Whether it’s a representative collection, only someone familiar with a good deal of Goodis’s short fiction would be able to say. After all, using various noms des plumes, Goodis wrote hundreds of stories, ranging from the ridiculous- his aviation adventure stories- to the sublime.
This collection concentrates on a sixteen year period, beginning in 1942, the year Goodis arrived in Hollywood, and ending with those published in 1958, when Goodis’s most important work had seen the light of day. However, Goodis had been publishing short fiction as far back as 1935, some four years before his first novel, Retreat to Oblivion, would see the light of day. Moreover, all the stories in this collection fall under the category, quite intentionally, of crime fiction, which leaves aside all those adventure stories written by Goodis over the years. Understandably, the stories collected here vary; but, saying that, one need consider the periodicals in which they appeared- Ten Story Mystery Magazine, New Detective, Manhunt, with only “The Road to Tarim,” published in Colliers, aimed at a more up-market readership. Likewise, the majority of these stories appeared while, or after, Goodis was a Hollywood screenwriter or back in Philadelphia carving out a career as a writer of paperback originals.
One suspects that it wasn’t simply for monetary gain that prompted Goodis to continue contributing to the pulps through the 1950s, but because he was also interested in maintaining his persona as a writer of pulp fiction, and the romantic image he held regarding that role. Embracing that guise, rather than aspiring to a more high-brow literary tradition, is, in part, what makes Goodis’s writing interesting and allows his writing to cut so close to the bone, create a grand gesture genre that skirts the boundaries of cliché, and openly celebrates marginality, obsession and human frailty. It’s what makes him unique and, ultimately, a model for the likes of Charyn, Pelecanos (who once told me one of his ambitions was to remake The Burglar) and Sallis. But, of course, these modernists are unable to write from the same perspective as Goodis, much less recapture the urban anxieties of the era. Not only have the night clubs, boxing arenas, strip joints and city spaces where those on the margins once congregated, disappeared, replaced by car parks, office buildings and strip malls, but so has a particular way of writing about the those places and people.
Of the the twelve stories here, five are extremely good, while the others are never less than interesting. One, “The Professional Man” (which Steven Soderbergh adapted in the Fallen Angels TV series), might be as good as anything Goodis ever wrote, while “Never Too Old to Burn” (1949), “Blue Sweetheart” (1953), “Black Pudding” (1953), “The Plunge” (1958), concerning desperation and revenge, are not far behind. All five stories were published, if not written, while Goodis was living in Philadelphia, long after his divorce from Elaine Astor, and his disillusionment with Hollywood. In fact, in “Blue Sweetheart,” published in 1953, the period the protagonist has spent in San Quentin corresponds to the time Goodis spent in Hollywood. Moreover, it’s only after his divorce and escape from Hollywood that Goodis’s writing was to reach its fruition, attaining the level of cynicism, obsessiveness and fatalism that we associate with the writer.
These later stories are also the most poetic in the collection. In fact, Goodis is often described as a poet of the gutter or the poet of noir. But do such terms carry any meaning or are they usually deployed for effect? Is poet, in this case, simply a synonym for Goodis’s underlying romanticism? Certainly if poetry is language at its most intense, condensed, rhythmic and meaningful, and the short story is the most condensed form of fiction, then it should follow that the best of Goodis’s short stories should be his most poetic.
Sure enough, “The Professional Man” reads like a prose poem:
“Freddy pressed the button. The blade flicked out. It
glimmered blue-white. He pushed the blade into the
handle and tried the button again. He went on trying
the button and watching the flash of the blade. It was
quiet in the room as the blade went in and out, in and
out. Then from the street there was the sound of a
horn. Herman said, ‘That’s the taxi.’ ...As he moved
towards the girls who stood at the cocktail bar, he could
feel the weight of the knife in the inner pocket of his
jacket. He was looking at Pearl and saying, ‘Come on, let’s
go,’ and as he said it, the blade seemed to come out of
the knife and slice into his own flesh.”
Appearing in Manhunt in 1953, the year in which Moon in the Gutter and The Burglar were published, “The Professional Man” is told in an exacting, hallucinatory style, moving as if time was about to stand still. It concerns Freddy, a seemingly mild-mannered elevator operator who moonlights as a tough as nails hitman for a local club owner. The story takes the same line as Richard Stark’s Point Plank. Namely, if organised crime functions as any legitimate business, then its workers will be similarly alienated. But whereas Stark’s Parker wreaks havoc on the world, Freddy destroys himself and those close to him.
What Goodis’s work, as well as that of other pulp noirists, such as Paul Cain, McCoy and Thompson, illustrates is the connection between noir pulp fiction and poetry, for both begin at writing degree zero, creating tension and intensity by condensing the language. While “The Professional Man” has reminds one of Fearing’s narrative poetry (translating into The Big Clock), even the earliest story here, the 1942 “The Dead Last Laugh” contains echoes of the short Kenneth Patchen poem, “State of the Nation.” Whether a poet or someone who merely writes poetically, Goodis was an unrepentant romantic, who was able to convey the poetics of marginality. With only a thin line separating poetry and pulp fiction, Goodis, at his best, was able to move from one to the other with ease. Clearly, this is a subject that merits further investigation.