Stranger Than Fiction: Philadelphia Noir

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Jan. 5, 2011

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In the last few years of his life, Goodis lived as though he were a protagonist in one of his own novels. He was embattled in a lawsuit with United Artists, who he was suing for copyright infringement in a landmark case that would change the law forever and which he wouldn’t live to see the end of (they lifted his Dark Passage as the premise for The Fugitive). He was the sole caretaker of a schizophrenic brother, Herb. His parents were both dead. He was having heart troubles.

The toll it all took revealed itself in a letter he wrote to a man named William David Sherman, in reply of his request to interview Goodis for a story. In a letter dated Aug. 16, 1966: “Illness has prevented me from answering your letter of July 15. I am going through a labyrinth of neurological difficulties which make it impossible for me to grant your request for an interview. However, if it will be of any help, I offer the following—I’m 49, and my first novel was published when I was 22. It was nothing, and the same applies to most of the 16 others published since then …

“At first I wanted to write very solemnly and handle only the most important issues. But of course the most important issue of all is putting food in one’s belly and in order to do that I deviated from the track most of the time and complied with the wishes of various editors and publishers. I admit this was weakness. I should have taken a job digging ditches, and because I was too lazy to do that, I threw away a lot of valuable time.”

In a letter to Sherman three months later, another reply, Goodis noted: “Nothing I did in the Hollywood studios is worth mentioning. Very few of the major characters in my novels operate on a criminal level. They live in neighborhoods of low real-estate value, which is a different thing entirely.”

The second letter was dated Nov., 11, 1966. Goodis would die less than two months later of, as it is listed on his death certificate, “cerebral vascular accident.” A stroke some believe was brought on by his being clubbed over the head and beaten a few days before his death while resisting a robbery outside a North Philly diner. The letters paint a bleak picture of the way Goodis saw himself and his career: Not worth mentioning.

“I have talked to Bill Sherman about [the letters],” says Lou Boxer, who brought them to the public light once they were made available at Yale. “True Goodis. Self-deprecating and not seeking any praise or accolades ... loathing the spotlight but living in the shadows the way he wanted away from the analytical eye. When he was left to his own designs, he was as free as a bird, doing and being whoever he wanted to be. When the light was shined on him, his idiosyncrasies and insecurities were magnified to such a degree that he appeared uncomfortable in his own skin.

“Was his evaluation of his work terribly depressing?” asks Boxer. “Of course, but it allowed David to slink off into his own world having successfully driven away more prying eyes.’

Goodis wrote a lot of himself into his characters, or, better still, how he perceived himself—a prankster like Dippy in The Blonde on the Street Corner (1954), a loner like Kerrigan in Moon. It’s said most of his books were an allegory of his life. The one-time Hollywood movie writer who returned to Philadelphia to churn out pulp and care for a sick brother could be the plot of one of his many fall-from-grace quick reads. Most of his main protagonists’ dialogue took place in their own head, exposing in them the kind of self-doubt Goodis exhibited in his letters to Sherman. “Don’t touch her!” “Touch her!”; “Leave!” “Stay!”; “Run!” “Walk”; “Have another!” “You fool!”

Goodis placed these characters in neighborhoods unlike the comfortable Logan he grew up in, the city’s most hard-scrabble patches of turf: Port Richmond, Kensington, Southwark before it blossomed into Queen Village, Germantown, Philly’s Skid Row, its Tenderloin, Chinatown and a fetid, rat-infested Dock Street that no longer exists.

“Maybe this sounds harsh, but I think about Philadelphia the same way,” says Duane Swierczynski, Philly-based author of hardboiled fiction with titles like Expiration Date and Severance Package, of Goodis’ protagonists. “Once, we were the nation’s capital; once, we created things you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world. But we’ve suffered a similar fall from grace, and we’re still struggling to figure things out. That’s why I only semi-joking call Philly the noir capital of the East Coast. The whole city is a hero straight out of a Goodis novel.”

Swierczynski, along with Boxer, is part of a growing number of Goodis obsessives in Philadelphia’s burgeoning noir community. He writes about Goodis frequently on his blog, Secret Dead, and his own writing has been influenced by The Prince.

And there are others. The fabulous Dennis Tafoya, whose books Wolves of Fairmount Park and Dope Thief have wowed critics in recent years. Keith Gilman, a crime writer whose book Father’s Day sparkles with a gritty realism afforded to him by way of his day job as a Philadelphia cop.

Along with them, Deen Kogan, a mystery collector and two-time host of Bouchercon—the largest gathering of mystery writers and fans in the world—when it has chosen Philadelphia as host city. Kogan has also co-hosted Bouchercon in other cities—Chicago and Las Vegas—and her collection (along with late husband Jay) of some 35,000 mystery novels is stored at Port Richmond Books, owned by another Goodis fanatic, Greg Gillespie.

“Deen is tireless, bright and incredibly sharp,” says Boxer. “Add to this her uncanny ability to recognize great writing coupled with her love of reading and you get one of the best go-to-people in the genre in the country.”

Boxer and Kogan started what was then known as GoodisCon in 2007, to honor the forgotten Goodis 40 years after his death. Back then it was a modest gathering at Society Hill Playhouse, owned by Kogan. Today it’s morphed into the much larger, much less niche NoirCon, which plays to a packed house of fans of the genre from all over the world. They still give a Goodis Award, an image of the author etched into it, which this year went to Pelecanos. Fittingly, Pelecanos’ favorite noir film of all time, The Burglar (1957), starring Jayne Mansfield and a reliable mainstay in noir cinema Dan Duryea, was shot in Philadelphia and adapted to the screen by Goodis himself.

Goodis is dead, but through the work of many Philadelphia noir writers who owe him a tremendous debt and people like Boxer, Kogan, Port Richmond bookstore owner Greg Gillespie, La Salle literary historian Ed Pettite, Mansfield University English professor and amateur Philadelphia historical archivist Jay Gertzman, Harold “Dutch” Silver, Aaron Finestone and others, he lives on.

Through his Philly-based fiction (most of his 17 books) Goodis exposes more about our city than any tourist guide could ever hope to. You see the trash. You smell the streets. You feel the stare from the roughneck across the alley. You run into the city’s tough guys, walk its narrow streets and pray one or both don’t get you. You step over its homeless sleeping on steamy grates in hopes of getting warm. You avoid eye contact with drunks. Sometimes you are the drunk. Sometimes you fight. Other times you fuck. Sometimes you’re happy, but mostly you’re not.

His books are us.

Noir, perhaps more than most genres, is forever joined in an intimate love affair with location, which is why many of the genre’s writers are associated so closely with the city they lay for bare on the pages they write: Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles; George Pelecano’s D.C.; Richard Price’s New York; David Goodis’ oft-forgotten Philadelphia.

“That’s the brilliance of the books when they’re successful—and they almost always are—is this feel,” says Johnny Temple, owner of book publisher Akashic Books out of New York City. “It’s so great, if you read Miami Noir , you can feel the breeze blowing while you’re reading.” Akashic started its famed noir literary anthology in 2004, and has, in six short years, published 44 different editions of the series, everything from Brooklyn Noir to Haiti Noir , from Twin Cities Noir to Istanbul Noir . Philadelphia Noir came out at the end of 2010.

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Anonymous said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 05:08PM

“I cannot wait for Sunday, January 9th to see the Goodis, the bad and the ugly!
David Goodis style!”

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2. Todd Mason said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 05:17PM

“THE SATURDAY EVENING POST was not a pulp magazine. Despite the deep desire of hipsters to make it so, pulp doesn't mean "trashy" or "transgressive," but instead it refers to a kind of fiction magazine that was printed on rough pulp paper. And while it tended toward adventure fiction, it was never restricted to that.

Would that Carlin Romano had only said foolish things about neo-nor over the years, but we haven't been so fortunate.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 07:57PM

“@Todd Mason

The piece doesn't say The Saturday Evening Post was a pulp magazine.”

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4. Todd Mason said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 09:35PM

“True. It does encourage misuse of "pulp" but doesn't actually call SEP a pulp..”

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5. leonard cobrin said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 09:38PM

“Excellent essay. Authentic. Congratulations.”

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6. Jay Gertzman said... on Jan 7, 2011 at 10:31PM

“This article is perhaps the best introductory essay to Goodis and his work. It covers all of the major themes and events in Goodis' work and life, and has many fine insights into a very complex person--and seeker after authenticity in his society.”

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7. william sherman said... on Jan 23, 2011 at 02:42AM

“Small correction to the article: I didn't ask to see David Goodis for a "story" but to negotiate the film rights to one of his novels. Also, Goodis' work was part of a chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation, and I wanted to include whatever he cared to say.”

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8. Adam Lounsbery said... on Apr 4, 2011 at 02:21PM

“"Fain a nosebleed"?

Who's copyediting the Philadelphia Weekly? A high school intern?”


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