Some David Goodis Moments

By Woody Haut

The first time I came across David Goodis was on the revolving bookstand in a Haight Street liquor store. It was San Francisco, spring, 1966. There, amidst Signet Classics, soft-core porn, and instructional titles along the lines of The Science of Sexology by Dr. Mortimer Snerd, M.D., was the Grove Press-Black Cat edition of Shoot the Piano Player. It wasn’t just the endorsement by Henry Miller- “I think the novel is even better than the film”- that attracted my attention, but the cover, a still from the movie showing, if I remember right, Aznavour and his girlfriend in bed. I had seen the movie several times and thought of it as some sort milestone in new wave, hardboiled romanticism. Dylan had even cited the film, misquoting it’s final line- “Music, man, that’s where it’s at”- at the end of one of his rambling liner notes, which of course only added to its mystique. Though I have to say that before coming across the book, I hadn’t even realised Truffaut’s movie had been based on a novel, much less by someone called David Goodis. But just looking at the cover, I knew I had to have that book, So I looked around, checked the convex mirror situated above the cold drinks cabinet, slipped it under my jacket and walked out of the store, unnoticed by the Chinese owner, a mild mannered guy who never seemed to mind me reading, maybe even occasionally stealing, his paperbacks. Not yet twenty years old, I couldn’t have known at the time the role Goodis would come to play in my life.
My next Goodis encounter came some months later in Berkeley at the old repertory cinema on Telegraph Avenue, where Pauline Kael programmed films, which must have closed its doors for good sometime around 1970. That evening they were showing Delmar Daves’s Dark Passage. I was there for Bogart and Bacall, but, as the opening credits rolled, I realised the film was based on a novel by the same guy who had written Shoot the Piano Player. I was just one of a half dozen people in the audience, one of whom was a young woman sitting across from me who cried throughout the entire film. Though I can’t say I was quite that moved, I loved everything about the movie, particularly seeing the world through Bogart’s eyes. So here was another Goodis novel I had to read. I asked around, because back then I didn’t know anyone who was into that kind of fiction- Hammett and Chandler, sure, but Goodis, no way. It turned out a fellow-student at San Francisco State- something of a petty criminal himself, who, on the one hand, had reputedly once owned the gun that killed Robert Kennedy, and, on the other, was precocious enough to be into the films of Sam Fuller and Don Siegel- owned a copy of the novel (the Dell paperback edition- what I would give for that copy now), and was willing to lend it to me. I stayed up all night reading it and thought it even better than Shoot the Piano Player. Plus, like Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Dark Passage was set in San Francisco. From that moment on, I was hooked on Goodis.
Other Goodis moments came later, such as the groundbreaking Goodis season at the National Film Theatre in London in the early 1980s. To coincide with the season, the British Film Institute published a slick looking programme entitled For Goodis’ Sake containing a number of short essays, including one by Sam Fuller, as well as the now famous photo of Goodis posing uneasily alongside Bogart and Bacall. As far as I was concerned, that photograph and the one in which he’s playing the piano, said everything there was to say about Goodis and his relationship to the world. A decade later there would be another, more complete Goodis season at the NFT. Meanwhile, in a Left Bank bookstore in Paris, I came across a copy of Philippe Garnier’s biography of Goodis, which Mike Hart at Compendium Books in London had been telling me about. At the time I couldn’t read a word of French, so told the woman behind the counter, who spoke English, the book was for a friend. Later I decided to learn French just so I could read such books, as well as the work of noirists unavailable in English from publishers such as Gallimard and Rivage. Moreover, I would spend countless hours perusing used bookstores in various countries, and usually in vain, in the hope of finding rare editions of Goodis’s work.
Though I had already read Hammett, Chandler and Himes, discovering Goodis would lead me to the likes of Thompson, Woolrich, James M. Cain and Charles Williams, and, with it, the realisation that here was a strand of fiction- working writers writing for working people- as good as anything I’d ever come across. So it was from those early encounters with Goodis that my interest in crime and noir fiction developed, turning into something of an obsession that would result in my three books Pulp Culture, Neon Noir and Heartbreak and Vine. Though Goodis didn’t affect my writing as such, he certainly would affect what I would write about.

Based in London, Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: the Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood. All are published by Serpent's Tail. This essay appeared in the GoodisCON program book. .