Sunday, April 20, 2014

David Goodis

If you ask any wordsmith who their favorite writer is, you’ll probably find that more than nine times out of ten, they can’t simply pick just one. You will often also likely be surprised at some of the answers you’ll get. For me it can vary from week to week, even day to day or hour to hour. Sometimes minute to minute.
When I think about my favorite writers a whole list pops up. Joe Lansdale comes immediately to mind, as does Cornell Woolrich, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, my father, as well as some of the usual suspects, like Stephen King and Dean Koontz. But more often than not, if you were to ask me which writer helped me to shape my writing the most, you’ll usually get the same answer. David Goodis.

A native of Philadelphia, Goodis also spent parts of his life in New York City and Hollywood during his professional years (he died about ten years before I was born). With the exception of one book taking place in NYC (Nightfall) and one in San Francisco (Dark Passage), Goodis cultivated the shadows of his Pennsylvania home town, using it as a template to craft his hard-boiled—or hardcore—stories about dark lives. You know the kind. Lives gone wrong, lives filled with criminality, alcoholism, and human despair, all majestically painted in a dreary, blighted landscape.  He has been called the “Poet of the Losers,” and while in some aspects the title seems apt, from other angles it seems a bit off the mark. I feel one could just as easily call him the “Poet of the Common Man.”

I discovered Goodis the way a lot of people find authors—through the movies. For years I worked in a video rental store that carried virtually every kind of movie imaginable. It was a treasure trove for the movie lover, and if you weren’t a movie lover when you started working there, you most likely were one when you left.

One day I was putting away The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and thought to myself that, other than a few Cagney flicks and some Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers romps, I really wasn’t very well-versed in classics. That same night I took The Treasure of the Sierra Madre home and watched it. Well, my friends, this movie so excited me that suddenly I had to see everything Bogart had ever been in. Moreso, it excited me about the classics, and even moreso, about Film Noir. For something like eight or ten months I don’t think I watched a single movie in color. I was all about the old black and whites.

And what do a lot of people, especially writers, do when they see a movie they really like? They check to see if it was based on a book, and if it was, who wrote that book. I read B. Traven’s novel and liked it, but then there was the night I took home the classic Bogart and Bacall movie Dark Passage, about a man convicted of murdering his wife who escapes from prison to prove his innocence, finding that his face is too well known, and is forced to seek some illicit backroom plastic surgery (which was a rather new concept at the time). When I finished watching it my first thought was that it was like something that could have come out of Donald Westlake’s pseudonym Richard Stark—I mean, the man did write a Parker novel called The Man with the Getaway Face. But it was the atmosphere and the flavor, the characters. I was already a huge Richard Stark fan, and this movie gave me the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling.

I went back to the beginning of the movie and saw that it was based on a novel by a man named David Goodis. Excellent, I wrote his name down, and the very next morning I went to the library. I searched, in hopes of finding the book that was the basis for this great movie I had seen the night before. But, alas, there was no Dark Passage. In fact there was only one book in the whole library by Goodis, D.

I pulled it off the shelf and it had the same cover art to another movie we carried at the Video Library (no relation to the Public Library). A French film by François Truffaut called Shoot the Piano Player. I had not seen this movie but it was well-regarded and, hell, if it was the same author who had penned Dark Passage, I was gonna give it a shot.

That’s where my true writer crush began. With the very opening 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.

Needless to say, I checked it out and took it home, and with each page I read, I found myself reading a little slower and a little slower. This man had a unique prose style I hadn’t seen the likes of before. His characterization was solid, deep, philosophical, but without pretense. Ten or twenty pages in I said to myself, “This guy has got something I want.”

Given that Shoot the Piano Player (originally titled Down There) was the only book in the entire Santa Fe Library system, I immediately went online, and found and bought whatever I could. Cassidy’s Girl, Nightfall, The Burglar, Of Tender Sin, Night Squad… and yes, eventually, Dark Passage. I was in literary heaven. Even now, when I need a kick-start, I often pick up a book by David Goodis, open it to any random page, read just a paragraph or two, and my juices start to flow.

So, as a writer, what did I learn most from David Goodis? Two things, one very important, one something I more just studied and, at times, mimicked. We’ll start with that one.

His vivid prose. His choice of words, his beautifully in-depth stream of consciousness that always enriches both the story and, more importantly, the character. His use of repetition without at all seeming repetitive. I’ve mimicked, I’ve tried, I’ve borrowed, but only David Goodis can write like David Goodis, as I’ve since learned only Trent Zelazny can write like Trent Zelazny, which brings me to the important one…

Honesty. While some may not find his prose as beautiful as I do, what they convey above anything else, is honesty. I believe the man, at least on paper, was completely and utterly honest with himself. When I was an alcoholic and my fiancé committed suicide, that was when I truly got it. I lost myself in Goodis again, and this time, after having suffered such horrible tragedy, he took me by the hand, and with each word he wrote, he explained to me that what I had to do, now more than ever, was be honest with myself. I agreed, brought up a blank screen, and in a very short time, while still a drunk, wrote Fractal Despondency, which even now, some three years since its release, some say is the best thing I’ve written. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but it was a big shift in my writing, as well as in my life. (By the way, I've now been sober three and a half years on the 28th of this month.)

I would still very likely be a writer, but due to things that happened in my life, I’m a very different writer than I probably would have been otherwise. And it’s primarily thanks to David Goodis who helped me figure out how to shape chaos into some semblance of order, that I am the actual writer I am.

Thank you, Mr. Goodis. Here's one guy on the planet whose life you changed, and I am eternally grateful to you.