What Good Is Goodis?
We’ve been thinking about the renewed interest in David Goodis, Philadelphia’s long-buried, hard-boiled crime novelist.
He died at the age of 49 in 1967, and had been called the “poet of the losers.” Goodis’ pulp fiction explains why. It is drawn from, inspired by, Philadelphia’s Depression-era streets: gritty, lonely, and on the edge.
But the “poet of the losers” was way too raw to be embraced by self-deprecating, 20th-century Philadelphia. It seems we’ve now moved beyond the place “that isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” (according to a billboard in the ’70s). Today, we can appreciate the irony — as well as the writer.
At a recent conference celebrating Goodis, folks steeped themselves in his genre, so often set in the row-house, skid-row city. Among the Philadelphia classics are Black Friday, Cassidy’s Girl and Down There, set in Port Richmond. (Francois Truffaut filmed this one as Shoot The Piano Player.) And there’s much more. Goodis was prolific almost beyond measure.
Since the old Goodis Days, we Philadelphians have come to define ourselves not by what we lack, but what we have. The whole urban experience has become re-cast in terms of money: $3 for coffee; $20 for lunch; $100 for sneakers. Experience has become a commodity, and so (it turns out) has mood. And Goodis was way ahead of us, capturing and representing Philadelphia’s mood more than half a century ago. His legacy is a bold interpretation of Philadelphia’s most difficult, and most colorful, times.
How did we come to yearn for the Philadelphia that only a few years ago was so embarrassing?
What was merely urban in the ’20s and ’30s became well-worn and gritty in the ’40s and ’50s. By the ’60s and ’70s we knew it as squalor. Then a great cleansing began, first with urban renewal and then gentrification. We’ve done such a good job thinning and paring, we’ve actually re-made the city — a bit too much. And now we miss what we’ve erased.
When Philadelphia’s gritty mood was prevalent we couldn’t even see it, let alone appreciate it. Now that it is contained, expensive, and sometimes even artificial, we’ve become wistful about it. That mood, that character, is not just patina, it is the soul of the city. It helped define our sense of place.
So, when real character grows thin where do we turn? (Where do we always turn when life fails us?) We turn to art. That is why the life and work of David Goodis is now enjoying a revival.
Philadelphia’s self-deprecating time has passed. And Goodis’ time has come.