Jawnts: A local writer and his roots

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Prolific noir writer David Goodis has been all but forgotten in the U.S.

It's a minor miracle that David Goodis ever left Philadelphia. The noir author shipped off to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting after his second novel - Dark Passage - was adapted into a hit Bogart/Bacall vehicle in 1947. Six years later he returned to the city of his birth, defeated by the glitz, to churn out pulpy novels of life in grimy working-class neighborhoods. The Simon Gratz alum and Temple grad (Class of 1938) spent the rest of his life taking care of his schizophrenic brother and going to bars in rough parts of town.

"I am no Raymond Chandler," Goodis once said, accurately. His novels have no Philip Marlowe equivalent and they aren't really crime stories. Mobsters and detectives are not front and center. It's just poor, working-class people, trapped in airless settings with hardly any opportunity and even less hope. Usually there is an artist, of some kind, who has suffered a permanently stunting setback and is now back in the old neighborhood, for keeps.

When Goodis died in 1967, at age 49, he was already on the way to being forgotten in his native country. But his novels are well-loved by the French, and it's not hard to see why. They're full of that hell-is-other-people spirit, with a dash of street grit to make sure the despair settles in nicely. He'd be forgotten if not for the Parisian imprint Serie Noire, which kept his work in print even as it faded to obscurity in America. The only biography of Goodis is not published in English, and besides Dark Passage, most of the movies made of his work are by French directors (François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player was based on Goodis' novel Down There).

Goodis' The Moon in the Gutter proves an excellent introduction to his work: The main character is Bill Kerrigan, a longshoreman and the only member of his five-member household with a job. He lives in an unnamed part of town in an unnamed city, clearly a stand-in for Kensington or Port Richmond. He must share a room with "the sunken-cheeked cadaver, the living waste of time and effort . . . his younger brother," who insists on frequenting what appears to be the most depressing bar in all of literature. Several months previous their sister killed herself after being raped, and Kerrigan is determined to find the man responsible - a mission complicated by a couple from "uptown" who start slumming in his local tavern.

Hardcore local Goodis fans meet every year to celebrate his life and works, usually with a focus on one novel. This year it's Moon, and they'll be meeting in the Walmart parking lot on 9745 Roosevelt Blvd., at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 4 for a free caravan tour of Goodis' Philly: the house, the bar, the hospital where he was extinguished. Afterward, they plan to retire to Port Richmond Books and Julie's Corner Bar for drinks and, hopefully, a brief lightening of the existential burden. For more information, visit noircon.com.


Have an event to include in Jawnts? jake.blumgart15@gmail.com