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Saturday, March 17, 2012

David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (hardcover, $35)

Mokes, cons, dames. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Noir from the 40s and 50s. This is the stuff from which classic dreams are made.

David Goodis was prolific. He died young (age 49 in 1967) but left a large body of work, only a fraction of which has been widely circulated and preserved. The Library of America is doing its part to spread the word.

Dark Passage, the book, was written in 1946. Bogart starred in the movie in 1947. "The Fugitive" went on television in 1963. Goodis began a lawsuit against United Artists and ABC, claiming "The Fugitive" violated his copyright of Dark Passage. The case was not resolved until after Goodis died, and then only for a pittance paid to his heirs.

In his lifetime, Goodis wrote primarily for pulp magazines. Dark Passage was one of his first books. Although many of his books sold very well when they were first published, it has not been until the last decade or so that interest has peaked again in him as representative of the golden age of noir.

Film noir immediately brings to mind high-contrast back-and-white images, dark tales of men and women whose morality is muddied and who seem only to get more desperate. A happy ending certainly isn't guaranteed. But, man, oh, man, they had style and a high cool factor.

This is about a story. A dark story. Dark Passage by David Goodis. It starts with a man. This is how it begins:

"It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin."

Vincent Parry makes a break for it one day. Then he's on the lam and luck finds him in the shape of the shapely and rich Irene Janney. But it's not even about Parry and Irene. It's not about whether Parry's wife was murdered. It's not about how Parry survives while on the run. All those things are interesting and essential to the story, but what is most important is how Goodis tells these things.

Here are a few quotes. Listen to the rhythm and humor and leanness.

"Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man."

"He wore a felt hat that had been dead for years."

"It was bad because it was soft and if there was anything he couldn't afford now it was softness. The lukewarm and weak brand of softness. Everything had to be ice, and just as hard, and just as fast as a whippet and just as smooth."

"A small studio orchestra was trying to do something with Holiday for Strings but there weren't enough strings. Toward the middle most of the orchestra seemed to be taking a holiday."

"He touched the door. He touched the knob. He handled the knob, turned it. He opened the door."

What a voice Goodis had! What a wonderful, wry, dark voice. It was full of emotional stasis and arrested movement while charging forward at the same time. Goodis is an undisclosed party in his scenes -- his aesthetic, his punchlines, his poetry, his deliberate style.

Humphrey Bogart's laconic portrayal of Parry matches Goodis' writing exactly. Game, set, match.

There are five books within this volume, including Dark Passage. It's a deal at $35.

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