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Review: David Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier March 12, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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goodisBack around 1986, having gotten into old movies, private eye novels, and Cornell Woolrich’s noir novels in the previous few years, I discovered the Prime Crime mystery bookstore in Ottawa and, through it, one of the most important developments in crime fiction that decade: the original Black Lizard books imprint. And one of the first Black Lizard books I read I was by David Goodis. I was hooked.

The Goodis books Black Lizard reprinted were as noir as Woolrich, but bleaker. Woolrich sometimes allowed happy endings. He had a romantic streak. Fate might crush your life, but love could save it. In Goodis’s books, the characters were more likely to be the cause of their own destruction, and love was generally with exactly the wrong person if it happened at all. In one novel, as I remember it, a wino goes for a walk, has a series of adventures that reveal the series of events that brought him into the gutter, and ends up right back there at the end of the book, seemingly content — or at least indifferent.

At the time, it didn’t seem that people knew much about Goodis. He started out with a literary novel that didn’t do too well, then wrote some more popular stuff that led to a few years in Hollywood working on movies, and then a return to his home town of Philadelphia, where he wrote lurid pulp paperback novels and faded into obscurity and died, possibly as a derelict alcoholic. And then Black Lizard brought him back to the attention of readers.

Meanwhile, the story went, he was one of the many American writers translated and reprinted in France in the Serie Noire line of books, and Truffaut made a classic film of one of Goodis’s books. Because the French understood and appreciated American noir better than Americans did.

Philippe Garnier had already published the first version of his book on Goodis in France in the 1980s, but it wasn’t translated and published in America until recently. He came to the USA and investigated Goodis, talking to people who knew him, following trails, and debunking myths along the way.

One of the first myths Garnier debunks is the French appreciation of noir. They definitely did like it and help keep it alive, and they helped maintain the popularity of Goodis and Cornell Woolrich and many others, but according to Garnier, the translations of these American writers left something to be desired. Books were shortened, plots simplified, writing styles homogenized, cultural signifiers (especially the glorious American cover art) missing. The French wanted to mythologize the writers of this stuff, not know it or its real context.

Garnier structures the book almost novelistically, following his leads, adding to what he learns about Goodis, but also manages it in such a way as to follow Goodis’s life chronologically. He mythologizes neither Goodis nor his work, pointing out that some of his books simply aren’t very good, and that he didn’t really make much of a mark on Hollywood. Some good movies were based on his novels, but he wasn’t involved in the screenplays. The best known is probably Dark Passage, which starred Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Agnes Moorehead, though Truffaut’s Tirez Sur le Pianiste (aka Don’t Shoot the Piano Player) is probably better known and respected than any of the Hollywood takes.

Goodis emerges as eccentric, but not necessarily as the kind of eccentric readers of his books might assume. He also emerges as someone whose life was somewhat compartmentalized — people who thought they knew him well didn’t always know about parts of his life. There were autobiographical elements in his fiction but he doesn’t seem to have been as drawn to a drunken wino existence as many of his characters were. Friends considered his books to be exaggerated and unrealistic. Garnier does suggest there are still things few people know, as when he quotes a psychiatrist who refused to be interviewed and hinted that Garnier would guess certain things about Goodis if he talked. The recurring theme of characters falling for sweet and innocent thin beauties but instead realizing they need to be dominated by big, rough women seems to have had some reality to it as well. But why give away everything? You should read the book if you’ve read this far. It’s a well written and enjoyable exploration of a unique individual, his times, and his work.

This is a trade paperback published by Blackpool Productions, which is run by Eddie Muller, who’s written several books on film noir, produces the Noir City Film Festival, publishes the Noir City e-magazine, etc etc. It’s an excellent production for a small press with only a couple of books out, well illustrated with photographs, book cover art, film scenes, and more. There’s just one or two things I could criticize. First, you have to buy this book from the publisher, here. Second, you may never find this website without knowing to look for it, because it’s an old-fashioned kind of website where each page is just one big image, no searchable text. I only found out about this book because I discovered the Noir City pdf magazine a few months back and bought a few issues. More people should be aware of this stuff.