When I graduated from college with a degree in English, I had ambitions of setting the literary world on fire. My plan was to move to Hollywood and become a James Joyce scholar who also wrote novels and screenplays. There was just one problem: I didn't know how to write.
Shortly after graduation, a friend turned me on to a slim little crime novel called Recoil by Jim Thompson. It had lots of hardboiled dialog and plenty of action, but it was psychologically slick and more than a little strange. I was hooked.
Recoil was published by Barry Gifford's Black Lizard imprint that reissued forgotten crime novels from the 1930s through the '60s. I read all of the Black Lizard books I could find, and while I came to appreciate Thompson's weirdness, my favorite of these novelists was David Goodis.
Goodis' stories were straightforward, and his characters tended to be working-class people on the fringes of respectability, but his prose was more lyrical and highly stylized. These novels were as entertaining as they were instructive. I'd breeze through a novel in an afternoon and reflect on the author's creative choices. It was all right there: setting, character, story and voice. Those Black Lizard novels taught me more about storytelling than four years of college did.
Thanks to Black Lizard, Thompson enjoyed a level of acclaim that he never experienced during his lifetime, but the same could not be said of Goodis. Goodis was a writer from Philadelphia who, despite having worked in Hollywood—most notably adapting his novel Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—remained largely an enigma. In a genre that thrives on mystery, one of its most important writers was cloaked in one that's taken decades to unravel.
In Goodis: A Life in Black and White (Black Pool Productions) Philippe Garnier answers many of the questions that have surrounded the shadowy figure. Who was he? What drew him to such dark material? What happened to him in Hollywood? Goodis being Goodis, even his biography has a curious publication history.
Garnier is a French writer and filmmaker who got on Goodis' trail in 1982, when he was making a short documentary about the writer, and published his findings in 1984. Now, 30 years later, it's finally been published in English.
In 1982, all of Goodis' novels were out of print in the United States, but he was widely read in France, where his novels were published alongside James Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the famous Série Noire, which predates the term "film noir." Goodis' work gained cultural currency in France in 1960, when Francois Truffaut adapted the novel Down There in his whimsical gangster flick, Shoot the Piano Player.
Garnier set out to discover why his countrymen were fascinated with what he describes as a "little known and lightweight American author," and the results are fascinating. It also helps that Garnier's biography reads like the case file of a private detective:
"After my return from Philadelphia, I started getting phone calls and letters from all over: Florida, New York, New Jersey, even Barcelona. Most of these people didn't know much about Goodis, but they all knew someone who knew."
Sleuthing around from coast to coast, Garnier uncovers a lot of fascinating material: Goodis was hardworking, ambitious and thrifty. Aside from a long stint in Hollywood, he lived with his parents and his mentally ill brother, who died amid mysterious circumstances. In Hollywood, he shunned the company of other writers. He had lots of friends but never talked with them about his writing or the movies he worked on.
Although he made a lot of money working in Hollywood, he was infamously tightfisted. He took labels from expensive tailors and had them sewn into second-hand suits. He drove around Hollywood in an ancient Chrysler convertible. Rather than live in an apartment or hotel, he rented a couch from a friend and would go days without bathing.
Most curious of all Goodis' proclivities was his nightlife. He was a masochist who preferred the company of large African-American women—or, as one source confides, "David liked them big and black, but they had to be mean, sullen, bitter and brutal."
That sounds a lot like the kind of prose you'll find in Goodis novels like The Moon in the Gutter and Street of No Return. Thanks to Garnier's pitch-perfect mix of persistence and panache, the dark alleys of Goodis' past are well worth revisiting.
Jim Ruland's debut novel, Forest of Fortune, will be published in August. He blogs at www.jimruland.net.