A Certain Kind of Amputation
By Christopher Forth
What happens to the one-time wrestler Hugger Plyne in Down There (1956) is a recurring condition of many male characters in the works of David Goodis: at some point and to some degree, his men are subject to “a certain kind of amputation. And we don’t mean the arms or the legs.” Plyne’s “amputation” comes in the form of a tongue-lashing by the waitress Clarice, the once indifferent object of his affection who now humiliates him publicly. Psychoanalytically inclined readers might recognize this “amputation” as a figurative castration, a reduction of the stereotype of male power, prowess and authority to the more human level of disavowed frailty and vulnerability. This is certainly how Goodis understands this idea. To some extent, being male in the Goodis universe is to be continually faced with the possibility of loss.
Goodis figures prominently in my recent forays into images of masculinity in American popular culture, not least because his protagonists seem to exemplify the kind of wounded and fragile male who recurs in film noir and hard-boiled crime fiction. This is why “hard-boiled” has always seemed to me inappropriate for describing how masculinity is represented such writings. If the private eyes of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane appear as invulnerable figures whose only weakness is a predilection for the sadistic, then Goodis’s men veer much closer to the overtly masochistic suffering of the protagonists of James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich, for whom some form of castration is an inescapable fact of life. Even Philip Marlowe doesn’t quite stand up to the hard-boiled hero Raymond Chandler described in 1950: “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. . . . a man fit for adventure. . . . If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.” Not only is one less likely to feel safe with one of Goodis’s men around, but their “completeness” is always menaced by the threat of amputation. They hardly seem “fit for adventure.”
It is perhaps better to view hard-boiled as an aspiration rather than a reality. In Down There, Eddie develops a “system” for separating himself from his own feelings and from the world around him, a defense mechanism that protects him from interpersonal and romantic entanglements while keeping the “wild man” within him at bay. Like his secluded family home, Eddie has made himself into a fortress with nothing to “connect it with the outside world. And that makes it foolproof. It’s a hide-out, all right.” What lures Eddie outside himself is the reminder that he is not physically castrated: his growing affection for Clarice is first manifested by an uncontrollable stirring “down there” that is as embarrassing as it is humanizing. Yet it is this evidence of manhood that ultimately leads to his undoing: his phallic potency almost demands amputation.
The desperate Vincent Parry of The Dark Passage (1946) is certainly no iceman. Prone to bouts of nerves and tears, he melts under stress and bears a psyche desperately seeking coherence. His frazzled nerves are also situated in a body that has failed him: despite his attempts to enlist, poor health 4-Fed him out of the military and deprived him of the masculine capital that his veteran status would have brought in the postwar period. True to his name, his relationship to the world is one of constant defense against its slings and arrows, and rarely of assertion or decisiveness. This sense of incompleteness and loss extends as well to other aspects of male life. For most of Nightfall (1947), the harried Jim Vanning feels robbed of the one thing that would make him complete—a wife and family—as he is shadowed by his more complete double Fraser, who seemingly has it all. “At thirty-three a man ought to have a wife and two or three children. A man ought to have a home.” As the postwar era made way for the almost compulsory domesticity of the 1950s, alienated loners like Goodis’s men would seem even more out of place.
Christopher E. Forth is a Reader in History at the Australian National University , where he teaches courses in the cultural history of gender, sexuality and the body. He is the author of The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Masculinity (2004), and of Civilization and its Malcontents: Masculinity and the Body in the Modern West, which is nearing completion. He is currently planning a new study on masculinities in crime fiction and film noir.
This essay appeared in the GoodisCON program book.
Dr Christopher E. Forth
BA (Niagara University, USA), MA, PhD (State University of New York at Buffalo, USA)
Christopher E. Forth is a reader in history at the Australian National University, where he teaches courses in the cultural history of gender, sexuality, and the body. He is the author of The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and Zarathustra in Paris: The Nietzsche Vogue in France, 1891-1918 (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001), and co-editor of Cultures of the Abdomen: Diet, Digestion, and Fat in the Modern World (New York: Palgrave, 2005) and Body Parts: Critical Explorations in Corporeality (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2005).
Recent articles and book chapters include: "The Novelization of the Dreyfus Affair: Women and Sensation in Fin-de-Siècle France ," in Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation, edited by Andrew Maunder and Grace Moore ( London : Ashgate, 2004), 163-178, and "Bringing Bellies Back In: Navel Gazing in the History of the Body," History Workshop Journal, 55 (Winter 2003): 239-247.
He is currently completing a book entitled Civilization and its Malcontents: Masculinity and the Male Body in the Western World (under contract with Palgrave), and is engaged in a collaborative research project on the history of obesity in Australia , tentatively entitled The Weight of Modernity. He is also co-editing a collection entitled French Masculinities: History, Culture, and Politics, with Bertrand Taithe ( University of Manchester ).
Link to home page: http://arts.anu.edu.au/history/forth/forth-homepage.htm
Dr Christopher E. Forth
Reader in History
Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200, Australia
Tel: (61) 2 6125 2717
Fax: (61) 2 6125 2222