What David Goodis
Means to Me
By David Schmid
I’ve always been a fan of noir fiction, but I didn’t come across David Goodis’s work until ten or twelve years ago, when I found a copy of ‘Down There’ in a used bookstore. It blew me away and I immediately tracked down everything else he’d ever written. I’d never read crime fiction (and I still haven’t) that was this poetic, so attuned and so sympathetic to the experience of the people life passes by, and with such an interesting take on hard-boiled manhood. Unlike the invulnerable macho heroes of Spillane, Daly, and so many other writers of hard-boiled fiction, Goodis explores men who are vulnerable, complex, open, and often traumatized. I found this fascinating and I started teaching Goodis regularly in my classes and writing about him.
My other big interest is the city in crime fiction, and Goodis’s work is great for this subject, too, in terms of what he has to say about and how he represents Philadelphia . This is the subject of my paper at Goodiscon:
From the Gutter to the Stars…and Back Again:
David Schmid (brown sweater) at graveside. Photo by Louis Boxer.
What did Philadelphia mean to David Goodis?
When David Goodis returned to Philadelphia in 1950 to move back in with his parents, his Hollywood screenwriting career in ruins, one could be forgiven for assuming that he would lapse into a moody silence. Instead, he began the most productive phase of his career, publishing some 13 paperback original novels between 1950 and his untimely death in 1967. Clearly, regardless of the demise of his professional ambitions, returning to his home turf inspired Goodis.
What did Philadelphia mean to Goodis? This paper will argue that Philadelphia provided Goodis with a way to explore his feelings about what had happened to his life, both professionally and personally. In novels such as Street of No Return (1954) and Down There (1956), Goodis uses intensely noir-ish evocations of the city as trap in order to relive obsessively his own decline and fall through his blighted protagonists, doomed to live lives of fatalistic circularity. In The Moon in the Gutter (1953) and The Blonde on the Street Corner (1954), the city comes alive as both backdrop and key ingredient in love stories defined by heated, even sadomasochistic, passion. Finally, in The Burglar (1953) and Black Friday (1954), Goodis uses Philadelphia to explore the seemingly ‘natural’ symbiotic relationship between the city and the criminal gang, while at the same time returning once more to the most fundamental concern of the Philadelphia novels: the simultaneous desire for and fear of human connection.
In Philadelphia, in short, Goodis found the perfect setting for his most abiding fictional concerns. Despite the fact that Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the names most synonymous with the ‘mean streets’ of crime fiction, I will conclude this paper by arguing that David Goodis’s exploration of the streets of Philadelphia constitute an exploration of urban culture without parallel in the genre.
David Schmid is a professor of English at the University of Buffalo, where he teaches classes on crime fiction and popular culture. He is working on a book about homicide and American popular culture. This essay appeared in the GoodisCON program book..