Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ROBERT POLITO on STREET OF NO RETURN



Introduction to Street of No Return

By Robert Polito

The following appeared in a slightly different form as the introduction to the Centipede Press edition of Street of No Return by David Goodis.

Among classic American noir novelists from Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and Kenneth Fearing through Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes, David Goodis (1917-1967) appears to be the figure always most in need of reclamation, his books drifting out of print, his status shadowy, ever elusive. This predicament proves especially puzzling as his sly, resonant titles – Dark Passage, Of Missing Persons, Street of the Lost, The Moon in the Gutter, Black Friday, Street of No Return, The Wounded and the Slain, Down There, and Fire in the Flesh – distill into lyric epithets an entire iconic noir cityscape, and sentence-by-sentence, I would argue, Goodis is our most crafty and elegant crime stylist. Noir is characteristically a language of objects, places, and names, an idiom that in a few bluff words summons worlds. Listen to the opening sentence of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me: “I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.” William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley: “Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.” But noir language just as distinctively proceeds by chipping away at the world and itself until there’s only a vanishing distress signal from a void. Early on in Dark Passage (1946) Goodis advanced a vernacular prose of rococo repeated phrases that limn, then all but erase his characters, here, for instance, mournful Vincent Parry and his disappointed wife Gert:

He began to remember the days of work, the day he had started there, how difficult it was at first, how hard he had tried, how he had taken a correspondence course in statistics shortly after his marriage, hoping he could get a grasp on statistics and ultimately step up to forty-five a week as a statistician. But the correspondence course gave him more questions than answers and finally he had to give it up. He remembered the night he wrote the letter telling them to stop sending the mimeographed sheets. He showed the letter to Gert and she told him he would never get anywhere. She went out that night. He remembered he hoped she would never come back and he was afraid she would never come back because there was something about her that got him at times and he wished there was something about him that got her. He knew there was nothing about him that got her and he wondered why she didn’t pick herself up and walk out once and for all. She was always talking in terms of tall bony men with high cheekbones and hollow cheeks and very tall. He was bony and very thin and he had high cheekbones and hollow cheeks but he wasn’t tall. He was really a miniature of what she really wanted. And because she couldn’t get a permanent hold on the genuine she figured she might as well stay with the miniature.

Goodis would reprise these reiterative, claustrophobic inflections for Down There (1956). But en route, by the time of Street of No Return (1954) and his other Gold Medal and Lion novels of the early 1950s, particularly The Burglar (1953) and Black Friday (1954), he stripped down his echo chamber style into spare, desolate phrases no less cunning or confining. Listen now as the three indistinguishable – at first – winos emerge out of Philadelphia’s Tenderloin near the start of Street of No Return:

“We need a drink,” one said. “We need a drink and that’s all there is to it.”

“Well, we won’t get it sitting here.”

“We won’t get it standing up, either,” the first one said. He was middle-aged and tall and very skinny and they called him Bones. He gazed dismally at the empty bottle between his legs and said, “It needs cash, and we got no cash. So it don’t matter whether we sit or stand or move around. The fact remains we got no cash.”

“You made that statement an hour ago,” said the other man who had spoken. “I wish you’d quit making that statement.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“I know it’s true, but I wish you’d quit repeating it. What’s the use of repeating it?”

“If we talk about it long enough,” Bones said, “we might do something about it.”

“We won’t do anything,” the other man said. “We’ll just sit here and get more thirsty.”

Bones frowned. Then he took a deep breath as though he were about to say something important. And then he said, “I wish we had another bottle.”

“I wish to hell you’d shut up,” the other man said. He was a short bulky bald man in his early forties and his name was Phillips. He had lived here on Skid Row for more than twenty years and had the red raw Tenderloin complexion that is unlike any other complexion and stamps the owner as strictly a flophouse resident.

“We gotta get a drink,” Bones said. “We gotta find a way to get a drink.”

“I’m trying to find a way to keep you quiet,” Phillips said. “Maybe if I hit you on the head you’ll be quiet.”

“That’s an idea,” Bones said seriously. “At least if you knock me out I’ll be better off. I won’t know how much I need a drink.” He leaned forward to offer his head as a target. “Go on, Phillips, knock me out.”

Philips turned away from Bones and looked at the third man who sat there along the wall. Phillips said, “You do it, Whitey. You hit him.”

“Whitey wouldn’t do it,” Bones said. “Whitey never hits anybody.”

“You sure about that?” Phillips murmured. He saw that Whitey was not listening to the talk and he spoke to Bones as though Whitey weren’t there.

If Dark Passage and Down There recall, say, Gertrude Stein, Street of No Return suggests Celine, or Beckett. In fact, Goodis’ trio of tramps chatter and wait and go nowhere like exiles from a lost Beckett play with a bottle assuming the role of the slippery Godot. As so often in Goodis, oblique strategies, along the lines of Whitey’s silence here, animate and stagger the narrative. During this same chapter he evokes a full-tilt race riot that Bones, Phillips, and Whitey overhear from some three dark blocks away, but do not see. Or later Whitey listens out of sight on a basement staircase as Gerardo, leader of the Puerto Rican gang around River Street, is pummeled by the “strong-arm specialists” Chop and Bertha, the scene a vivid mash of table talk, blows, howls, and pleas, but absolutely no visual cues about the participants at all.

Street of No Return focuses two interlocking stories – Bones, Phillips, and Whitey’s search for a drink, and then, inside that story, Whitey’s reluctant search into his own obsessive and violent past. A famous band singer, with something of the “small lean” physique and phosphorescent swing-set appeal of early Frank Sinatra, before his love for Celia, an ethereal dancer and prostitute, and a vicious beating by the minions of her racketeer common law husband, Sharkey, devastated his career, Whitey joins such improbable but heartbreaking fallen Goodis virtuosos as Eddie, the former Carnegie Hall pianist turned saloon entertainer in Down There, and Hart, once a wealthy artist, now appraising art for a heist outfit while he evades a murder rap, in Black Friday.

Whitey (aka Eugene Lindell) is among the most idiosyncratic and complex of Goodis’ inventions. From the outset, as he stares into his own reflection in an empty wine jug – “The curved glass showed him a miniature of himself, a little man lost in the emptiness of a drained bottle” – he seems only numb, all his talk and actions performed “mechanically” or “automatically.” Goodis compares Whitey to a ruined machine: “There was a dragging, weak clanking sound like the useless noise of stripped gears, and he knew it cam from inside his chest. He had the feeling that all the flesh inside was stripped and burned out.” Whitey so wishes to be left alone that he would rather turn himself over to the police than respond to questions a new acquaintance, Jones Jarvis, puts to him. “I’m tired of breathing,” he says to Jarvis; and then he says to himself, “No use continuing the masquerade…The truth is buddy, you really don’t give a damn, you’d just as soon be out of it.”

Yet this broken cipher recurrently charms himself out of violent encounters, whether with Gerardo or Lieutenant Pertnoy of the Clayton Street Police Station, and despite insistent threats refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. At once fearless and incorrigible, he starts a small revolution in the cellblock, and thwarts a convoluted plot to incite a race riot on River Street. Goodis is especially deft at etching Whitey’s monomania – his fixation on a fresh bottle, his tenacity at trailing Chop and Bertha after they resurface along Skid Row, his seven-year obsession with Celia. Jones Jarvis recalls hearing Gene Lindell, “the lad with the million-dollar voice,” on the radio:

“Singing from ‘way up high on the moon an ’way down deep in the sea. High and low and high again, and it was a voice that made you high when you heard it, happy high and sad high, and you hadda close your eyes, you didn’t wanna see a goddam thing, just sit there and listen to that singing. You knew you’d never heard a voice like that in all your born days. And then them bobby-soxers started yelling and screaming and you felt like doing the same. That voice did things to you, went into you so deep it made you get the feeling you hadda come out of yourself and fly up and away from where your feet were planted. So next day I walked into a music store and all the loot I saved was shoved across the counter. ‘Gene Liddell,’ I said. Gimme his records.’ The clerk said, ‘Sorry mister. We’re all sold out.’ A few days later I tried again, and this time he had just one in stock. I took it home and played it and played it, and for weeks I went on playing that record and the jitterbugs would come in and forget to chew their bubble gum, only thing they could do was stand there with their mouths open and get hit between their eyes with that voice. They’d forget to move their feet. They were jitterbugs but they couldn’t jitter because that voice took hold of them and paralyzed them. That was what it did. It was that kind of voice.”

Then Jarvis invokes Whitey’s voice after Chop and Bertha worked him over:

“Your voice,” Jones said. “The way you can’t talk above a whisper. As if you got a rupture in your throat. As it it’s all torn apart in there.”

Again Whitey looked at the floor. The grin was gone now and he didn’t know what was on his face. He opened his moth to say something and he tried to get the sound past his lips and nothing came out.

The “rupture” in Whitey’s voice is just the most corporeal emblem for all the blocked, shattered lives in Street of No Return. Celia emerges as at least as vacant and lost as Whitey, and for all their frantic motion Chop, Bertha, and Sharkey sound as dead-ended as the original three winos. Sharkey mooning about Celia is not only Whitey’s enemy, but also his double:

“Look, I’ll put it this way,” Sharkey said, his smile very gentle, his voice soft and soothing. “My main interest in life is taking care of her. It’s the only real enjoyment I get. I just wanna take care of her. If she was in a wheel chair I’d spend all my time wheeling her around. If she was flat on her back I’d stay in the room with her day and night. You get the picture.”

The past and present of the novel will converge in the Philadelphia race riots, but Street of No Return arranges not so much a plot as a succession of astonishing, intermittently surreal spaces: the lights and noises of the Tenderloin against the black vacuum of Hellhole; the chaotic Police Station, full of “sounds he’d never heard in any station house, or even in the alcoholic wards of municipal hospitals”; the “network of winding alleys” that Gerardo guides Whitey through until they reach a rickety dwelling crammed with sleeping families and weapons; the spilled ash cans, smashed glass, and “asphalt ribboned with bloodstains.” The boldest scenes mix familiar novelistic naturalism and a sort of pulpy surrealism – Whitey’s genial dinner with Sharkey after the gangster catches him at the train station as he is about to depart with Celia; Jones Jarvis’ peppy music fan palaver for the artist formerly known as Eugene Lindell; and the conversation in the back of a police car where Lieutenant Taggert calls Lieutenant Pertnoy “a freak” because, “Once a week he gives a local whore ten dollars to tie his wrists and bind his eyes and put him in the closet for an hour.” For Street of No Return Goodis devised a snaky diction, at once fantastic and matter-of-fact. Here objects tend to speak. A bottle, a blackjack, a window, a train, even Hellhole itself. “No sirree, the Hellhole said to Captain Kinnard of the Thirty-seventh District, this is our boy Whitey and we won’t letcha have him…It wasn’t anyone’s voice and yet Whitey could almost hear it talking. He began to have the feeling a lot was going to happen before morning.”

Although, as Whitey senses, “a lot was going to happen,” and it does, Street of No Return tracks an elegant, convulsive circle, at once a resolution and an impasse, and of course he winds up back on the same corner with Bones and Phillips where he began. “Well? Shall we go,” Vladimir asks Estragon at the conclusion of Waiting for Godot. “Yes, let’s go,” Estragon replies. But as Beckett’s final stage direction reads, “They do not move.



Bio:

Robert Polito is the author of Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and the editor of Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s. His most recent books are the poetry collection Hollywood & God (University of Chicago Press) and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (forthcoming from the Library of America in October). He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School in New York City.


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