He, You, I:
Shifting Points-of-View in Down There
By Dr. Keith O'Neill
Assistant Professor of English and Humanities
Readers of David Goodis have long known that the plain style of his prose is misleading, that he is in fact one of the most highly stylized of the hardboiled writers. Though his novels do not appear formally innovative, they reveal themselves to be highly self-conscious constructs; many deal directly with artists and their anxieties about producing (and failing at) art. His bleakest and barest novels—The Moon in the Gutter (1953), Street of No Return (1954), Down There ((1956) — are paradoxically also his most complex. Goodis’s well-publicized withdrawal from the limelight of Hollywood has helped to reinforce the notion that Goodis “gave up” his career as a serious literary writer.
Fans of his novels, of course, know that Goodis’s most interesting and “literary” works were written well after his return to Philadelphia. The plot of Down There perfectly mirrors this somewhat misleading story of Goodis’s career: Eddie, after a promising start as a concert pianist, winds up playing background music is a dive bar: he is the musical equivalent of a hack writer. Eddie even resists taking part in the events of the novel, and only slowly do we learn his story and the events that have brought him “down” to his current status. Fascinatingly, Goodis employs a subtle and sophisticated strategy with point of view to mirror his character’s gradual development: He starts with a neutral third person narrator at the beginning of the novel, and then, as Eddie’s character moves from stasis to complexity, he introduces “you,” the second-person point-of-view. Finally, deep into the novel, the story of Teresa’s suicide is told intimately, from the first-person point-of-view.
This shifting point-view works to undercut’s Eddie’s claims that he’s “just” a simple piano player, that there’s more going on under his apparently bland surface. I would then argue that this consciously literary strategy is a kind of parable for reading Goodis’s books in general: Just when there seems to be nothing going on, the most is happening. In Goodis’s writing, the worst of worlds is in fact hiding the most interesting of patterns—under the guise of failure there is virtuosity.
This essay appeared in the GoodisCON program book..