November 26, 2014

On the Streets of Philadelphia — Discovering the Noir Universe of David Goodis

book revA nondescript sign hanging above an uninviting door on a street in Philadelphia says ART, BOOKS. The door opens easily and what you see on the other side makes it feel like you’ve walked into a movie.

There are all kinds of interiors, some dull, some posh, and then there are vistas like the one extending into the far distance. Books and art are here, as promised. Piled on top of floor-to-ceiling shelves teeming with volumes from the era before ISBN numbers are paintings, jumbled, tumbled, balanced, constructively haphazard, as if arranged by a Hollywood set designer on a roll, canvases framed and unframed, original artworks, some of it shrill and chaotic, like hieroglyphics gone wild, graffiti that couldn’t find the right wall. As you venture farther back, past immense, picturesquely faded 19th-century French posters advertising livraisons partout gratis by Paul de Kock, you find boxes of old records, sheet music, postcards, vintage magazines and newspapers, auction catalogues, and, filling the last long stretch of the vista, antiques with enough charisma to suggest that a Maltese Falcon or Brasher Doubloon might be found on the premises.

So if this is a movie, what’s it about, where’s it coming from, and where’s it going? The genre that makes the most sense for such a murky, intriguingly disordered setting is film noir. Except that doesn’t fit with my idea of Philadelphia, even though literary historians say Poe invented the detective story here, writing “Murders in the Rue Morgue” a few years before George Lippard produced The Quaker City … A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1845), one of the wildest, weirdest Gothic mind-benders ever written. It’s also true that the City of Brotherly Love is where two bop piano geniuses suffered brain-damaging beatings in the 1940s, Bud Powell at the hands of the police, Dodo Marmarosa attacked by a gang of sailors who dumped him headfirst on the dockside railroad tracks. You could fashion a tragic noir around either man, both of whom never fully recovered.

The idea of a movie about an embattled pianist brings to mind François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which was based on a novel by what’s-his-name, the writer of the book behind one of my favorite noirs, Dark Passage. I’m thinking of the scene where Bogart goes out in the middle of the San Francisco night to find a plastic surgeon because he needs a new face. The doctor who does the job is philosophical, telling Bogart “There’s no such thing as courage, only the fear of getting hurt and the fear of dying.” For some reason that line gives me the name I was looking for, David Goodis. Because Dark Passage was set in San Francisco, I always thought Goodis lived out there. In fact, he’s right here, right where he belongs, with these thoughts of beatings and piano players in this vast curiosity shop in the City of Brotherly Love.

Finding David Goodis

Looking him up online that night, I learn that David Goodis was born and grew up in Philadelphia, studied for a year at my alma mater Indiana University before transferring to Temple, where he graduated in 1938 with a journalism degree, moved to New York City, worked in advertising, wrote for pulps like Horror Stories, Terror Tales, and Dime Mystery, published Dark Passage in the Saturday Evening Post, sold it to Hollywood, knew the stars (there are photos of him with Bogart and Bacall). Then back to his hometown for good to become the poet laureate of Philadelphia noir, turning out Gold Medal paperbacks like The Moon in the Gutter, Nightfall, Cassidy’s Girl, Of Tender Sin, Street of the Lost, and Down There, the book that went to Paris and became Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste.

The only thing by Goodis I could find locally is a paperback of Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the first paragraph:

There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they’d better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.

That’s an irresistible opening, word-music and articulated atmosphere as mood-making as Charles Asnavour’s beyond worldweary face glooming above the piano in Truffaut’s film, which brings the melody of feeling to life much as Goodis describes it: “a soft, easygoing rhythm, somewhat plaintive and dreamy, a stream of pleasant sound that seemed to be saying, Nothing matters.” As for the piano player, he’s “slightly bent over, aiming a dim and faraway smile at nothing in particular.”

Where fiction most impressively surpasses film and makes you understand why Henry Miller said the novel was “even better” than the movie is in the love story between the piano player and the waitress. In the film Lena is played by Marie Dubois, whose charming wholesome beauty and lovely smile make it a foregone conclusion that Aznavour’s Eddie would be instantly infatuated. Gaddis’s depiction of the awkward evolution of a deeply felt relationship is so tensely and determinedly understated that it takes on a force greater than all the violence in a violent book. Dubois’s youthful charm is no match for the presence and power of Gaddis’s waitress. This is why the end of Down There has an emotional impact beyond anything in the film. After seeing the woman he was afraid to fall in love with shot dead in the snow, the piano player goes back to the refuge he found after his fall from concert hall glory, a dockside dive called Harriet’s Hut, where Lena worked. One way he tries to resist loving her is to think of her not by name but as “the waitress” right up to the moment of her death — “down there” in South Jersey.

“Less is more” is the line Gaddis follows from the cold wind of the opening paragraph to the deliverance of the conclusion, with Goodis, like a pianist himself, at his own keyboard. People in the bar are urging him to play, they all but lift him onto the stool, but he’s “got nothing to give them,” until a whisper comes “from somewhere” telling him he can try. When, with eyes closed, he hears the sound, “warm and sweet,” coming from a piano, he thinks, “That’s a fine piano …. Who’s playing that?” And as the story ends: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Earlier, when he heard jazz coming over a car radio, the piano player said something similar to himself, “That’s very fine piano … I think that’s Bud Powell.”

It’s said that during his year and a half confinement at Creedmore after the Philadelphia attack, Bud Powell drew a keyboard on the wall of his cell, so he could open his eyes and see it there and imagine his fingers moving on the keys.

The Writer as the Player

The cover of La vie en noir et blanc, the biography of David Goodis by Philippe Garnier (Editions de Seuil 1984), has a photograph of Goodis at the piano, a cigarette in his mouth. After reading his way through Goodis’s dark world, Garnier commented, “I find it very difficult to imagine springtime in Philadelphia.”

Julian Rackow, Goodis’s lawyer in the suit he brought against the hit TV series The Fugitive for allegedly stealing ideas from Dark Passage, found it no less difficult to put his impression of Goodis into words, at least until he saw Shoot the Piano Player: “Upon leaving the theater, my wife said that I looked as pale as a ghost. I was shaken because it was as if I had seen David Goodis.” Besides observing that the Aznavour character had “many of the personality and physical traits of David Goodis,” Rackow felt that both men were versions of “the quintessential loner.” The piano player was the writer, “all wrapped up tightly within himself … far more comfortable within his own shell.”

Streets Given Meaning

On the same day that began at the emporium behind the ART/BOOKS sign, my son and I drove to a used record store called Sit & Spin on South Ninth in the Italian market, a part of the city I’m not very familiar with and at the time had no desire to know better. On our way, we covered a lot of ground, crossing innumerable four-way-stop intersections of streets that had no particular significance for me.

At home, after discovering a fantastically informative web site called “Shooting Pool with David Goodis,” I learned just how wide a swath of urban territory his novels encompass. Those insignificant street names I’d passed earlier that day were now charged with meaning, fiction and real-life merging in an area the web site calls Goodisville: “The majority of the novels were set in Skid Row, the Delaware River docks, Kensington, Southwark, and Port Richmond. Three of these areas are truly lost to contemporary Philadelphians. Working class Southwark is now Queens Village, most of which is increasingly upscale. Dock Street, overlooking the waterfront and once the center of a sprawling and cacophonous produce market, is now the location of independent film theaters, and of the Society Hill Towers apartments. Skid Row fell to redevelopment plans over 30 years ago; the derelicts, the fleabag hotels, and the Sunday Breakfast Association have long been unlamented.”

The circumstances of David Goodis’s death at 49 in March 1967 have a noirish aspect. While the official cause is given as a “cerebral vascular accident,” the consensus seems to be that it resulted from the beating Goodis suffered while resisting a hold-up attempt.

Down There can be found in the Library of America’s anthology American Noir of the 1950s. Gaddis has a volume all to himself in Five Noir Novels.The 2nd Street emporium is Jules Goldman Books and Antiques.