Monday, March 27, 2017

Jay Gertzman's Pulp According to David Goodis: Charles Willeford


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SIMILAR TO GOODIS #4: Willeford’s Pick-Up

Harry Jordan in Pick-Up (Beacon, 1955) is close in temperament to the author, just as Goodis’ stories, as Garnier’s Goodis: The Life in Black and White shows, are deeply autobiographical – one assumes. Harry shares with his creator his own experience with road kid childhood, army experience, aggression, lusts (girls), and appetites (consuming greasy fried food, red meat, and sweets). Of course, they have much in common with the typical American male reader of pulps. Goodis’ tastes in food and watching and describing fights are, like those of his protagonists, those of people who, unlike himself, cannot afford better diet (greasy-spoon stew, chop suey, canned peaches, jelly beans).
One establishment that fascinated Willeford and Goodis was the storefront cafĂ©, diner, or hash house. This is where Pick-Up starts, with Harry behind the late-night counter slapping a frank on a bun, slathering it with chili and onions for a lonely sailor who washes “the unpalatable mess” down with hot coffee. A beautiful, hung-over woman comes in. This Helen, “my Olympia” (the allusion is to Manet’s masterpiece reclining nude), becomes the love of Harry’s life. Later, Harry becomes a fry cook at a lunch room in downtown San Francisco, dishing out eggs, bacon, burgers and fries from a menu that makes no distinction between breakfast, lunch, and dinner—just the kind of place at which Goodis’ friends were afraid they would end up if he invited them out to eat.
Witnessing a bar fight is another common experience of working class urban men. The first happens when a workman insults Helen; Harry kicks him in the nuts, then the gut. Later, when Helen’s alcoholism had destroyed her mind, Harry discovers her with a sailor. With relish, he uses a shard of a broken bottle, “moving the sharp, glass dagger back and forth across his white face with a whipping wrist motion.” Al Darby, in Of Tender Sin, does even worse, on Philly’s Skid Row.
Willeford, like Goods, is excellent at involving readers with precise descriptions of the atmosphere of places as familiar a part of working men’s lives as the newsstand, cigar or book store where they purchased paperbacks like Cassidy’s Girl and Pick Up. The 1950s were the height of the industrial age. That means rooming houses, bars, movie and burlesque houses, taxi dance halls, , and the downtown neon-lit streets and dark alleys.
Harry and Helen are both noble losers. Alcoholism is one reason; their social status is another, and their authenticity at understanding mutuality is a third. Harry and Helen have a love for each other so great as to have no boundaries, and that of course pits them as profoundly against the world as are Romeo and Juliet--that is, to the death. But there is not one drop of romance. They both admit being “pretty much failures in life.” But in this bleakness, they are free from the pettiness and falseness of the world. The lovers do not care any more about success or survival—like Jander and Vera in Somebody’s Done For, also pub 1967.
Fate is against them, and it is intertwined with the culture that has made them outcasts. A gigantic part of this is inferred but not stated until the end of the book, in fact the last sentence. Whatta wind-up (you gotta read this book; it was a Black Lizard from 1987, first pub. 1967, the year Goodis died).

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