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It’s a description that perfectly fits the characters of David Goodis. Born in 1917 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, Goodis was a writer for such pulp magazines as Gangland Detective Stories and Detective Fiction Weekly before breaking into radio and film. He got his first real break in 1946, when his novel, “Dark Passage,” was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and turned into a movie starring Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The story is about a man named Vincent Parry who is convicted of murdering his wife, only to escape from prison to confront the jilted lover who framed him. It features such classic Goodis elements as blunt, repetitive prose; copious violence; a nightmarish atmosphere, and a tormented, lovesick character. Though he eventually escapes from the law, Parry is forced to leave behind the woman he loves.
That was his girl. That was the happiness, the sweet purity he had always wanted and wanted now more than anything. And he could hear her pleading with him to come back and take her. He could hear himself pleading with himself to go back and take her. And under flashing sunlight the road remained dark.
Though “Dark Passage” is one of Goodis’s best books, his 1956 novel, “Down There,” is better known — at least to fans of New Wave French cinema — thanks to François Truffaut’s 1960 film adaptation, “Shoot the Piano Player,” starring Charles Aznavour. (A remake, titled “Don’t Shoot the Piano Player,” is currently in preproduction.) Its main character, Eddie, is another recurring Goodis type — a once-famous artist living in self-imposed obscurity after a life-shattering trauma. In this case, Eddie was a concert pianist whose wife committed suicide after cheating on him in order to advance his career. Now he tickles the ivories at a rundown Philadelphia bar, in a state of near-catatonic detachment. “It was almost as though he wasn’t there and the piano was playing all by itself. Regardless of the action at the tables or the bar, the piano man was out of it, not even an observer.”
Other Goodis characters include criminals who dream of respectability, working-class men leading dead-end lives and, in a few cases, down-and-out drifters trying to get by in some of the most depressing neighborhoods in America. They are all permanently at loose ends, sufferers of inner displacement, victims of an existential precariousness. The artist R.B. Kitaj once described his idea of diasporism as “the last days in a transit camp, with your thin mattress in a roll at the foot of the bed.” It’s the state Goodis’s characters live in, as well, where the only thing to contend with uncertainty is fear.