David Goodis: The Kafka of East Oak Lane
That David Goodis is “the poet of the losers,” and that his universe is as cold as the frosty sleet-driven winds of Philadelphia’s November, has been eloquently stated. In his room in his parents’ comfortable house in East Oak Lane, he could write about his own city, its wintry street corners opening out onto block after block of uniform row houses, its gutters reflecting moonlight from the other side of the universe. Bad luck often drove his protagonists to the parts of the city most open to, and most challenging to their suffering and the need to deal with it. From beginning to end of his career, Goodis used the devices of popular hard-boiled, melodramatic pulp fiction. Like many modern novelists, he retells his story time after time.
Geoffrey O’Brien wrote that “the absolutely personal voice of David Goodis . . . . [is] “the wailing of an outcast.” Perhaps Goodis exemplifies Kafka’s description of one for whom “writing is only an expedient, as for someone who is writing his will shortly before he hangs himself.” I cannot document that Goodis read a word of Kafka. But there are congruencies in their painful self-consciousness, their sexual desires and inhibitions, their settings, and in their anxious, perseverant, law-bedeviled protagonists.
Recently, Kafka has been appreciated for much more than his diagnosis of the entrapment of “mass man.” Kafkaesque, as Cynthia Ozick notes, is defined as the “limitless web of the societal, the political, the historical, the customary, the trivial” that made up the world Kafka lived and wrote of. The idiosyncrasies of his protagonists’ fantasies and sense of self are equally important as his depictions of state bureaucracies.
It is the fullness of Kafka’s world that allows me to see how Goodis’ precise sense of place and painful insights about the indomitability of fate parallel it, sometimes uncannily.
Many of Goodis’ stories, set in underclass neighborhoods, describe the bureaucratic Kafkaesque, the use of convoluted, arcane administrative power. The fugitive Parry got a bitter taste of the legal bureaucracy in DARK PASSAGE; his only escape was permanently to flee the country. The stevedore Kerrigan got a taste of the corporate version in THE MOON IN THE GUTTER when he encountered the white collar administrators of the shipping company who were about to fire him. His sympathetic boss made it easier on his employee, himself, and especially the company: by doing the firing personally. After his self-defense killing of the bouncer Plyne, the piano player Eddie was protected from the police investigation by his friends down there at Harriet’s Hut, because they had had a bellyful of official procedures that solved crimes quickly at the expense of justice for underclass citizens. Everyone knew someone vulnerable to being “railroaded.” And many hadfound their property values decline, or their homes marked for destruction to make way for the new expressways that took factory and store owners out of their neighborhood to surburbia.
Goodis’ thorough absorption in hard boiled Philadelphia’s river wards, Skid Row, docks, large produce markets, and working class row houses is formidable: the wood-frame houses, streets littered with detritus, including dead cats and sometimes humans; decrepit bars selling rotgut; back room gambling dens; Chop Suey places; cat houses; the moon peering out behind clouds at puddles and scenes of desperate struggle. “I’m showing you the dirt,” Bill Kerrigan tells a woman from the patrician
Main Line. For Goodisville’s citizens, entrapment has no end in sight, like that of K the directionless land surveyor and the citizens of the town below the Castle, the stranded country doctor, and the freezing bucker rider in search of enough fuel to survive a cloudless night. Often, people with long-dormant personal resources and little support from others cannot challenge the unknown or the watchdogs who threaten any attempt. Kafka’s famous parable “Before the Law” is the exemplar: “This entrance was made only for you. I’m going to close it now.” Goodis’ Jim Cassidy, Al Darby, Ralph Creel, and Corey Bradford face the same existential paralysis in “blighted” neighborhoods either controlled by crime bosses or threatened by City Hall with a “redevelopment” that would force aging residents to leave their homes.
Kafka frequented Prague’s, and Berlin’s, louche cabarets (with waitresses who fulfilled customer’s sexual needs), theaters, and brothels. His settings reflect the state of his characters’ souls in an alien social unit. K., the land surveyor in The Castle slogs through the snow and finds only icy suspicions and the loyalty of townspeople to what the citizens have to guess are the Castle’s rules. In “The Bucket Rider,” a man without coal rides on his empty bucket through frozen dark streets to the coal merchant, asking for a shovelful on credit. They act as if his voice is just the freezing wind itself. The alien social unit in “The Judgement” and “The Metamorphosis” is the protagonist’s own home, in which he loses his will to live.
The closest similarity to Goodisville is the working class neighborhood of tenement houses where Josef K, in THE TRIAL, has been summoned for his hearing. Incongruously, the court has rented an apartment in a slum. There are rowdy, belligerent children, wash lines, pushcarts, and a gramophone “murder[ing] a tune.” Inside the improvised courtroom are “haze and dust,” motley, disheveled, shouting spectators, and a couple either kissing or fighting with each other. Later, the woman who rents out the room to the court flirts with Josef, and tells him the Examining Magistrate likes her also. A portion of the magistrate’s stack of broken-backed, well-thumbed books contain not statutes but illustrated pornography.
Josef observes that the Court must have “limited funds” to sit where “the poorest of the poor tossed their useless trash” [the attic of the tenement]. He concludes that the situation would “humiliate” a defendant (in this case himself, who now must be thinking his life is at the mercy of a man of bewildering incongruous inclinations). Perhaps he now understands why the court convenes in a grimy street where people struggle to keep minimally solvent, which often means coming to terms with “kick down” exploitation, as in Goodisville. Josef begins to see himself as helpless, similar to what the woman and her husband feel.
Realism and the Fantastic
Few writers can imitate the sense of frustration, merging realism with the bizarre, the disorienting, and the dreamlike, as Kafka can. James Hawes remarks Kafka “pushes the dominance of the ‘unreal’ over the ‘real’—of psychological states over mappable facts—right to the limit. . . .”
At the root of the pulp imagination are very powerful images, many about universals, and especially American universals, basic to aggression, fear, domination, isolation, and Sisyphean burdens. Despite the formulae that attracted mass readership, pulp was often as allusive a description of the American Dream as “serious” literature by writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Wolfe, or Nathaniel West, before whom Goodis humbled himself, describing himself as a mere “entertainer.” However, it is the story that counts. His Geraldine and Tillie are versions of weird stereotypes familiar to contemporary movie and pulp magazine fans in personas played by, for example, Hope Emerson (6’2”, 230 pound prison matron in Caged ), or Barbara Stanwyck, platinum blonde serial murderess in Double Indemnity (1944). Preparing for becoming the bride of Death, she chalks her face white, and wears a red silk dress the color of her lips. It’s Cain’s version of the figure of life-in-death from The Ancient Mariner. Goodis’ work showsd how ntimately he knew that beyond lurid narratives are nightmarish universals, as Kafka certainly did. The latter used folklore, biblical and Hasidic narrative, horror, and circus life motifs.
Of the writers Goodis esteemed, only West uses the disorientation of Kafkaesque “legend.” Goodis does approach it, with fat Tillie (a painting of men hanging from a tree like apples is over her bed) and with Geraldine in Of Tender Sin, both of whose stories have implications of biblical degeneracy. Tillie may be a version of Jezebel, and Geraldine a version of Lilith. At her silent, dark house in Kensington, where the dust-covered furniture has remained in place for six years, Geraldine appears in frayed clothing seemingly having been worn for the same time span. She has been waiting for Al Darby to return, sensing that her irresistible appeal is based on her resemblance to Al’s sister, whom he raped at age 12. The only safety valve for his suppressed guilt is his masochistic enslavement to her sexual and emotional abuse.
A HUNGER ARTIST is a legend set in a circus sideshow. He is a man apart: one who refuses to fill his basic human needs. He lives in squalor (rotting food), displays his withered extremities and bony ribs, talks to fans who bring flashlights to authenticate his decrepitude. Force feeding keeps him conscious. The procedure does not bother him. He must fast. His art is his life. And, inevitably, his death. With his last breath, he whispers to his impresario that if he had ever found anything more fulfilling than fasting, he would have eaten voraciously. He was replaced by a panther from whose jaws stream “the joy of life.” The artist is the brute’s opposite, yet just as ferociously determined. He cannot survive, yet has his own mysterious nobility, which Kafka makes legendary.
In STREET OF NO RETURN and DOWN THERE, the protagonists are also once-successful and doomed popular entertainers. Both Goodis and Kafka are concerned with the relation of an artist and his/her audience (See Kafka’s “Josephine, the Singer, or, the Mouse Folk”). Because he would not give up Celia, Eugene Lindell’s vocal chords were ruined by repeated blows from the blackjack of the monstrous Bertha, on orders of her boss Sharkey, Celia’s boyfriend. A Hope Emerson type, Bertha is every bit as preternaturally stimulating for someone’s masochistic fantasies. Whitey had a lot in common with Celia; she was as charismatic a dancer as he was a singer, with an equally taciturn and passive temperament. After Bertha’s attack, and especially because Celia did not leave Sharkey, Lindell became “Whitey,” a homeless alcoholic.
His second adventure with Sharkey (he never gets to speak again with his beloved) leaves him just as humble, and just as dedicated to his Skid Row shadow life, as the Hunger Artist to his cage. It was not only Sharkey and Bertha who deprived him of his mate, it was archetypal fate, set uncannily in stone. Its message was that sacrifice and loyalty are nothing more than personal choices, as the Hunger Artist, equally fated, knows. Whether or not they are redemptive is a secret known only to the individual.
Eddie has caged himself too, DOWN THERE in a time warp of a Port Richmond sawdust bar where he plays the piano, and does so with a hypnotic effectiveness greater than he knows. His decision not to lose his comfort zone at Harriet’s Hut is even closer to the Hunger Artist’s than that of Whitey to remain on Skid Row, since Eddie, like the Artist, continues with his destiny as an entertainer. Because he failed to recognize that what he thought was his wife Maria’s infidelity was in fact the opposite, he has given up on love and any other kind of joy of living. That sacrifice leads only to his failure to save Lena, who loves him as much as did his wife. He ends up with the same Noble Loser’s fate as did Whitey, except that he can still perform as compulsively as did the HUNGER ARTIST, which he is doing at the end, in a performance as detached and compulsive as were those of Kafka’s sideshow Artist.
A Goodis novel often implies the chasm between the sensually enticing, strong-bodied aggressors (Mildred [CASSIDY’S GIRL], Lenore [BLONDE ON THE STREET CORNER], Frieda [BLACK FRIDAY], or Geraldine [OF TENDER SIN]) and the unassertive, often waiflike female whose promise is above and beyond the sexual: Celia [DOWN THERE], Gladden [THE BURGLAR], Edna [BLONDE], Myrna [Black Friday], or Doris [Cassidy]. The contrast is between the erotically overpowering and the spiritual (“sweet purity”), or, in the mundane argot of the thriller, the femme fatale and the “good girl.” The latter is identified with moral courage, cleanliness and purity, while her opposite incites a “poisoned embrace”: lust, sadomasochism, and disease.
Two of Kafka’s protagonists, Josef K, the accused waiting for his trial, and K the land surveyor waiting for his orders from the Castle, find relief from tensions in aggressive, underclass femme fatale. Leni is nurse, and quite possibly also mistress, to an important lawyer. Josef’s uncle’s contempt for her suggests Leni may have been able to charm him as well; he calls her a “witch.” Leni entices Josef from the room where he awaits an important consultation and sits on his lap. Telling him she can replace his current girlfriend, she shows him the fingers of her right hand, which have a web-like tissue of skin between them. In a gallant gesture motivated by a need for relief from the stress of being on trial, Josef kisses the hand (“what a pretty claw”).
Leni, aroused or wanting to get Josef in that state, climbs all over him, her kisses like bites. She draws him down to the carpet and says, “Now you belong to me.” She confides to Josef that defendants always appeal to her, presumably because of their vulnerability to disaster (“the proceedings being brought against them”). Helplessness and masochism go together and both explode into desire and shame. These are the dispositions in which Goodis’ Cassidy (CASSIDY’S GIRL), Al Darby (OF TENDER IN), Ralph Creel (THE BLONDE ON THE STREET CORNER), Bill Kerrigan (THE MOON GUTTER), and George Ervine (BEHOLD THIS WOMAN) get themselves “turned on.”
Frieda, a barmaid who has managed to become mistress of Klamm, an important official attached to the Castle, entices K to lie with her under a table in what must be a kind of smelly paste composed of dust and spilled beer, where they spend “enchanting” hours, so fulfilling “one could only lose oneself further.” In America, 15-year-old Karl Rossmann is seduced by a servant, Johanna, who forces him into her room, throws him on the bed, smothers him in the sheets, thrusts her hand between his legs, and jumps on him. The eventual result is a child.
His parents (who give him a photo in which they have disapproving looks on their faces; his mother’s smile hides a “hurt” expression) exile Karl to America, where he has his first encounter with an American girl in a come-get-me gown. This is the randy, domineering Clara, who treats him to a demonstration of wrestling holds. She threatens to humiliate him to the point of suicide. This is virtually the “wind up” (to use one of Goodis’ rueful phrases) for Al Darby, George Ervine, Bill Kerrigan, and Corey Bradford. However, only one of Goodis’ protagonists, Nat in The Burglar, dies at the end of a novel. He drowns in the Atlantic with his lover, whom he thought until too late to be his sister. The others persevere, as do Karl Rossmann and K the land surveyor– whose novels Kafka did not finish– Josephine the Singer, and the persistent rodent who builds “The Burrow.” All are looking for a place to belong. The epitome is Goodis’ perfectly-named Hart, expelled onto the streets of Germantown from a criminal family for having sympathy with a victim, and wanted for the euthanasia of his cancer ridden brother. “He had no idea where he was going, and he didn’t care.” But he perseveres.
We unfold (not less deeply bound to humanity than to ourselves) through all the sufferings of this world. In this process there is no place for justice, but no place either for dread of suffering or for the interpretation of suffering as a merit.” (Kafka, Aphorism 98)
“There is more ‘redemption’ in Goodis’s novels than might otherwise appear,” wrote William Sherman, who also said, “He does not rule out chance and meaningful coincidence, the unconscious, the fact of our human divinity . . .” Prof. David Schmid comments that “Goodis “explore[s] the seemingly ‘natural’ symbiotic relationship between the city and the criminal gang, while at the same time returning to [his] most fundamental concern: the simultaneous desire for and fear of human connection.” Cullen Gallagher believes “there’s still that ambiguity of hope. . . . . The journey wasn’t over. Had he lived to write even one more book, would Goodis and his characters have found the home they had been searching for since Retreat from Oblivion [his first novel]?
Since the desire to see some kind of community and mutuality emerge from exploitation, brutality, and indifference is as deep as faith itself, and just as illusive, Goodis’ attraction to readers may be based, as are Kafka’s, on one of their deepest, most uncanny, spiritual wishes, even a dream of the Tree of life.
Ozick, “Transcending the Kafkaesque,” in Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), pp.107-09.
Louis Begley, Franz Kafka: The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head (NY: Atlas, 208), p.32; James Hawes, Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life (NY: St Martin’s, 2008), 229. Hawes, 32-33, 191, 200.
See Reiner Stach, Kafka The Years of Insight tr. Shelley Frisch(Princeton: Univ. Press, 2013), 442-45: “Kafka’s world was mythical in nature.”
This is the quotation of Aphorism 98 in The Basic Kafka, ed. Erich Heller (NY: Washington Sq. Press, 1979), p.241. In The Zuraü Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, trans. Michael Hofmann (NY: Schocken, 2006), it is designated Aphorism 102, p.101.
“David Goodis by William Sherman,” Goodiscon: A Literary Conference in Honor of David Goodis (program booklet), p.22
“What David Goodis Means to Me,” Goodiscon conference booklet, 2007, p.27.
“The Last Words of David Goodis,” The Detective and Daniel Webster [program book for NoirCon 2014), p.93.
A French paperback cover for Street of No Return:
From a post-war German production of The Castle (Hanns Braun, The Theater in Germany, 1952. Josef K. in lower left.
From Michael Haneke’s film of The Castle