Sunday, August 30, 2009

RETURN FROM OBLIVION


RETURN FROM OBLIVION

The unearthing of David Goodis.

Your name is David Goodis.
You grow up in East Oak Lane — nice neighborhood, good parents. You have a kid brother who dies when he's only 3. Another kid brother who is born mentally challenged — though they don't call it that back then. His name is Herb.
You're a jokester. Your cousin thinks you're the next Jack Benny. Years later, he'll tell people about the goofy stuff you do, like pretending that your toe was caught in the Girard Avenue trolley tracks and yelling at the top of your lungs for help.
Life makes you laugh.
You go to Simon Gratz; later you earn a journalism degree from Temple. You graduate, hit New York. Advertising. You write a novel — Retreat from Oblivion. The first line: "After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business." Some wags repeat that line in their reviews of your novel. Fuck 'em.
You write pulp stories. Tough men's adventure stories featuring boxers. Airmen. Soldiers. Cops. You name some of these characters after Herb.
Then in 1946, the Saturday Evening Post in your hometown of Philly wants to pay you 12 grand to serialize your next novel, Dark Passage. The first line: "It was a tough break." But it's your big break. Even before it hits hardcover, Warner Brothers snaps up the rights. The movie version stars Bogart and Bacall. It's a hit.Hollywood beckons. You're signed up to a fat contract. Your first screenplay, The Unfaithful, is a hit, too.
Out in Hollywood, you're still a jokester. You go toHollywood parties in a ratty old bathrobe, pretending to be an exiled Russian prince. You tell people you're too cheap to buy your own place, so you're renting a couch from a lawyer buddy. For $4 a month. You wear the same blue suit. You dye it when necessary. You sew designer tags on the sleeves, mostly just to fuck with people.
After a few years, though, things start to sour.Hollywood isn't for you. You ache to return toPhiladelphia.
In 1950, you move back into your parents' house in East Oak Lane. Your bedroom is impossibly tiny. Your bed and typing desk barely fit in the same room. But it's all you need.
You write Cassidy's Girl, the first in a string of brilliant, dark novels that will only be recognized as "brilliant" and "dark" years after you're dead. They only pay you $1,500 for each book, a far cry from the gravy days of theSaturday Evening Post.
You don't seem to care.
You set your novels in the streets of Philadelphia — in Port Richmond, in Southwark, in Northwood, in the Tenderloin, on Skid Row, along the icy Delaware River. Books like The Moon in the Gutter and Black Friday andThe Blonde on the Street Corner. They all spring to life in your bedroom.
You dig boxing. Jazz. Ribs. Obese black women.
You can replicate entire Charlie Parker solos on the kazoo.
You like shooting pool at Mosconi's up on Broad Streetwith your brother Herb. Nobody knows you're a writer. You never make a big deal of it.
Your parents die, which breaks your heart.
It's just you and your brother Herb, in that house in East Oak Lane.
You see a TV show: The Fugitive. It seems to be ripped right from Dark Passage. You call your agent, asking if you still own the copyright to Dark Passage. You do. You decide to fight back. On an envelope, you write two things to remember: Sue the makers of The Fugitive. And then: Buy toothpaste.
You lose the suit, though later, your estate settles for an undisclosed amount.
And then — it's not clear if this is true or not, in fact, it's hazy for you, since you're dead — but in early January 1967, somebody tries to take your wallet. Word around the neighborhood is you fought to keep it. Somebody knocked you on the head, took it anyway.
Either way, on Jan. 7, 1967, 11:30 p.m., you die. You're not even 50. The doctors list "vascular cerebral accident" on your death certificate. Herb is sent to an institution.
As you'd put it: It's a tough break.
You're forgotten.
Then 40 years later, a bunch of people gather in a playhouse in Center City for a lit conference, talking about your life and work. They love your work, talk about how much Philadelphia you infused into it. They just can't figure you out. They pick over the known facts of your life, and there are so many contradictions.
Which, in some weird way, makes you laugh.

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