Stranger Than Fiction: Philadelphia Noir

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

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“It was a tough break.”

That’s the first line of the first book David Goodis wrote, Retreat from Oblivion, in 1939. He was Philadelphia’s most famous unknown writer, but that’s probably just how he’d want it.

He’s the forgotten Prince of Philadelphia Noir, the Poet of Losers. Born into this cruel, unforgiving world on March 2, 1917, he was taken from it 44 years ago this week, on Jan. 7, 1967. He was 49.

Goodis lived quite a life. He was editor of his high school newspaper, The Spotlight, at Simon Gratz. He was president of his class. The caption under his yearbook photo reads:

David Loeb Goodis
4758 N. Tenth Street. A bundle of energy, a fountain of thought,
Few like “Dave” have e’er been

Just below that poetic description, a list of Goodis’ school activities go on at length, enough of them to make Max Fischer from Rushmore look like a stone slacker: President of Students Association, Debate Club, Forum, Philosophy Club, Representative, Captain Monitor, Finance Committee, Chairman of Gala Nite—Corridor Committee, Writing.

He was even on the “No Smoking Committee,” ironic considering nearly every character in each of the 17 books that bear his name lit up every other page.

And those characters, particularly his protagonists: downtrodden, down-and-out, desperate, hungry, cold, couldn’t catch a break. They’d all been taken down a peg (or 20), each had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, many experiencing a fall from grace.

There was no light at the end of their tunnel. The good guy did not always win. In fact, he seldom did.

This is noir, a literary genre that does the sobering and thankless work of describing the life you’ve been dealt, not the one you wish you’d had. Crime writing without the detectives. Or, as famous Washington, D.C., crime/noir writer George Pelecanos described it at NoirCon—held in Philadelphia since ’07—in November at the Double Tree hotel on Broad Street, the idea that “things are not ever, ever going to get any better.”

Goodis’ work exemplified Pelecano’s description. His books, it was once said, are not books at all. “They are suicide notes.”

“I disagree with that,” says Lou Boxer, a doctor of anesthesiology and Goodis fanatic. “I think they’re very dark and depressing, but it’s almost his way of dealing with life.”

Boxer discovered Goodis’ work in “2006 or so,” and has been borderline obsessive ever since—“compulsive,” as he says. He’s on a mission—along with a few other dedicated fans, so-called “Goodis Guys” or “Goodisheads”—to keep Goodis’ name alive in his native Philadelphia.

Since discovering the writer, Boxer has become the world’s foremost authority on the man, tirelessly tracking down Goodis’ old friends and relatives, writing anyone who ever had contact. He publishes his findings on and He’s truly smitten, traveling happily down a mostly forgotten and partially grown-over path placed there by an entire nation: France.

The French. From the beginning, they’ve been wild for Goodis, devouring his work with rapturous abandon while he was still alive to see it. Without them, Goodis is forgotten. They threw a giant croissant tied to a line into the abyss, he latched on, and they fished him out. Plucked him from the obscure fate of so many pulp novelists of the past.

“If it wasn’t for French publishers and French directors, Goodis’ name may well have disappeared altogether in the late 1960s and ’70s,” writes Adrian Wootton in the introduction to Goodis’ Of Tender Sin. “The importance of the French Serie Noire crime imprint cannot be underestimated for many crime writers, but particularly for Goodis. It was through this that several of the greatest French filmmakers, including Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, became aware of Goodis and decided to adapt his work for the cinema.”

Truffaut adapted Goodis’ Down There for the screen as Shoot The Piano Player (1960). Gerard Depardieu starred in the on-screen adaption of The Moon in the Gutter. Most of Goodis’ work was translated into French, for a people who seem fortified from birth to withstand the force of his prose. To agree with its tone, even.

The author of the lone biography on Goodis is French: Philippe Garnier. His 1984 book, David Goodis: La Vie En Noir Et Blanc (A Life in Black and White), remains to be translated to English and is very hard to find. Boxer owns a copy he had translated.

“The dominant intellectual strain of 1950s France was existentialism—[Jean Paul] Sartre and [Simone de] Beauvoir—and existentialism says there is no meaning to life given by God or the universe,” says Carlin Romano, Pulitzer Prize-nominated book critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer for some 25 years before leaving recently. “So there was always a great appreciation post-war in French literary and intellectual culture for kind of down-to-earth American life. And I would say if you had to pick one American crime writer of the ’50s who fit perfectly with French existentialism, it would be Goodis. I don’t think it was any accident.”

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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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