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THE SATURDAY READ

Noir tale is vivid against bleak landscape

Black Friday And Selected Stories David Goodis Serpent's Tail: 434 pp., $13.95 paper

October 28, 2006|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

DAVID GOODIS is the quintessential hard-boiled writer, someone for whom noir was not just an aesthetic but a way of life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1917, graduated from Temple University with literary aspirations and published his first novel, "Retreat From Oblivion," when he was 22. From there, however, his career was a series of setbacks and disappointments, near-misses and never-weres.

His biggest success came in 1946 with the thriller "Dark Passage," which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This led to a screenwriting contract at Warner Bros., but Goodis never did much in Hollywood, returning to Philadelphia in 1950. With the release of "Cassidy's Girl" the following fall, he became king of the paperback originals, publishing 11 novels in the next six years. These books are remarkable for the consistency of their vision, the loneliness and disappointment with which they frame the world.

Again and again, Goodis writes of artists or professionals who have betrayed themselves, ruined by whiskey, women or their own character flaws. In many ways, the story is his. Although he enjoyed periodic flashes of recognition -- his 1956 novel "Down There" inspired Francois Truffaut's film "Shoot the Piano Player" -- Goodis essentially remained anonymous, churning out pulp fiction that sold quickly and just as quickly went out of print. Depressed and alienated, he died in 1967, of complications from cirrhosis, at age 49. He remains a cult figure, his books sporadically available and not widely read.

Newly reissued, "Black Friday" is Goodis' 12th novel, originally published in 1954. To be honest, it's not his best book; that honor probably belongs to either of the two novels that preceded it, "The Moon in the Gutter" and "The Blonde on the Street Corner," or the bleak and unrelenting "Down There." Still, it is a vivid effort, not least because of its compact vision and the way that Goodis touches on nearly every theme that marks his work.

The main character is Hart, a painter on the run from family tragedy, who returns to Philadelphia (he's a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania) only to fall in with a criminal gang. To survive, he must pretend that he is one of them; his life depends on not being found out.

Complicating matters are two women, the tough and domineering Frieda, with whom he sleeps, and the quiet Myrna, whom he loves. This is a typical Goodis triangle -- the male protagonist caught between two very different women -- but here it is exacerbated by the claustrophobic nature of the book. Virtually all the action unfolds in a row house, during a freezing week in January, as the gang grows edgy in such tight quarters and in anticipation of a score.

The tension is so overt that it's almost physical, especially for Hart. "He wondered why he wasn't sick," Goodis writes. "He thought maybe he was beginning to get tough. He told himself it didn't really make any difference, because he didn't give a hang, but underneath he knew he did give a hang and it made a lot of difference and no matter what he kept telling himself he was really afraid of what was happening inside him." The idea of a character watching himself harden and yet unable to stop it is classic Goodis; for him, existence is not so much something to be directed as to be endured. Events come upon us and we yield to them; the only choices are bad ones, and no one ever wins.

There's a temptation to see this as a reaction to his life, which, if his work is any indication, was a source of disenchantment and despair. But his fiction speaks to a deeper existential desperation, an essential disconnection from the world. It's no coincidence that Goodis' novels take place almost entirely in Philadelphia, an old city, a cold city, a city of crumbling streets and broken promises, where the past encircles his characters like a noose. "If we gotta blame something," gang leader Charlie tells Hart and Frieda, "let's blame it on the climate. We got a weird climate here in Philadelphia."

Here we have a definitive territory of alienation, in which there are no codes, no larger community and everyone is on his or her own. Even when we find a place -- a home, a family -- it's a matter of convenience, or worse, another trap. This is what the gang represents: a strange kind of family, in which the price Hart pays for shelter is the subjugation of himself. And yet, the self always emerges, although when it does, we're not necessarily better off. "So this is the way it usually happens," Hart reflects. "It doesn't need a Frieda to spill the beans. Sooner or later we do it ourselves, we give ourselves away."

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