Thursday, September 18, 2008


What continues to amaze me about Goodis is that he gets away with so much despite the highly censored times he was writing in. In Black Friday not only is the violence as nasty as anything you could read today, but the sexual discussion within (impotency, the female sex drive, closing your eyes and making a go of fucking someone who disgusts you - all discussed at great length) is close to what you'd find in a Philip Roth novel. Aside from an overall lack of the word "fuck," Black Friday almost reads like it was written in the present.

The extremely tight plot follows Hart, a desperate man stranded in Philadelphia with not even a buck to his name and no winter jacket. He rips off an overcoat from a retail store and is pursued by the police around town for a while before he stumbles across a man dying in the street. The man offers him eleven grand in thousand dollar bills and Hart takes it, only to then be pursued by the dying man's killers.

A scuffle ensues and Hart ends up killing one the men and earning the respect of the other, Charley. Charley is apparently the head of a gang, a gang that once included the man Hart took the money from before said man betrayed the gang. Naturally, the gang also included the man who Hart killed, Paul, whose sister Myrna is none too happy to see Hart accepted with open arms by Charley after Hart gives the eleven grand back to its rightful owners. The gang now consists of Charley, Mattone, Riccio, Myrna, Hart and Frieda, all of whom live under the same roof. Charley only allows Hart to join them on their next job - a mansion robbery that will go down on Friday the thirteenth (hence the title) - after Hart explains that he is on the lam since murdering his brother back in New Orleans for control of the family fortune. It is Charley's belief that to kill for practical reasons like money makes you a professional, and he'll have nothing but pros in his outfit.

Thing is, Hart's reasons for offing his brother are a little more complicated than that...

This leads to a sort of hyper-intense play of sorts, with most of the action taking place within the gang's hideout. Mattone is an ex-boxer moron whose insecurity makes him challenge Hart at every turn. Myrna seethes with hate for Hart since he killed her brother. Frieda is sexually attracted to him but belongs to Charley who is impotent. She also can tell that Hart isn't a professional. Hart knows that Charley will kill him if he doubts Hart's professionalism in any way. All of this keeps the tension up around eleven.

Then, of course, there's the ill-fated Black Friday heist on the near horizon.

In other words, Black Friday never lets up. It has that perfect mix that we occasionally find in crime fiction where the plot is both extremely simple and agonizingly complicated at the same time. Every character is clearly defined and made vivid in the imagination. The dialogue is both witty and cleverly profound, like it's out of a Ben Hecht-Howard Hawks screenplay.

In other words, it's pure Goodis. Also, if you read the Serpent's Tail edition of the novel, you get a bunch of Goodis short stories as well, most of which kick some solid ass as well.

As I close this review, let me say that things have been rather black in the literary world as of late. We've lost Fletch creator Gregory McDonald, literary wunderkind David Foster Wallace, and now Sughrue/Milo creator James Crumley. Crumley's Bordersnakes was a major part of my noir self-education when I was in junior high, a book that sparked and warped my fragile imagination, and for that I'll never forgive or forget him. May Mr. Crumley, Mr. McDonald, and Mr. Wallace all rest in peace.

1 comment:

Jay A Gertzman said...

Very good observations. Maybe Goodis got away with the sex and violence because the pulp paperbacks of the 50s were appealing to a general, particularly a working class audience, and Goodis, a writer previously for pulp mags, knew what could be done. The books were not reviewed, but certainly came under scrutiny of the committees who wanted to equate the problems of young people with the pulp paperbacks. _Of Tender Sin_, with its incest and sexual masochism, was cited in 1952. I think Philip Roth would have liked Goodis, but doubt he ever heard of him.