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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Down and Out in David Goodis' Philadelphia

Shoot the Piano Player (Down There)
By David Goodis

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (October 3, 1990)
  • (Originally Published 1956)
  • Language: English

(Read: Nov. 20, 2012-Jan.4, 2013)

If you are a follower of film noir, you hear a lot about Shoot the Piano Player, arguably one of Truffaut's best-known films following his breakthrough, The 400 Blows.

But I hate to admit that until my friend and former journalism student Steve Pham pulled my coat, I had never heard of Down There, the terse noir novel it is based on, or its author, David Goodis, even though Goodis had written the book Dark Passage on which one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart films was based.

I read the Black Lizard paperback edition of Down There, which has been renamed Shoot the Piano Player. The book is noir fiction in a nutshell, hitting on just about every note the genre is known for.  It has an alienated protagonist, the hopelessness of his attempt to steer clear of trouble, the frustration of his inability to make basic relationships work, and a completely understated aura of violence that makes the entire thing work.

In brief, the book and the movie are both about a man named Eddie, a renowned concert pianist who dropped out after his wife commits suicide because of her shame at being trapped into an unwilling sexual liaison with Eddie's agent.

Now Eddie lives in a run-down flat, scraping by playing honkey-tonk for drunks in the Hut, a Philadelphia gin joint. He is withdrawn, cool and without affect. His dealings with people are at arm's length. His only desire is to avoid involvement.

Unfortunately, Eddie's past comes back to haunt him: his brothers, petty crooks who have been working as hired muscle for a Mafia-style crime syndicate, have robbed their employer and are being sought by a pair of  mob hit-men.

One of the brothers chances across Eddie in the Hut. Eddie intervenes  when the killers catch up to his sibling, but the hit-men immediately turn their attention to Eddie, realizing that he can lead them to his brothers and the missing swag. 

Lena, a waitress in the Hut, is attracted to Eddie and has figured out his past as a concert musician. Eddie finds himself falling in love with her, despite his desire to remain aloof and unattached. The romance is  complicated by the fact that the Hut's bouncer wants Lena, too.

The hoods make a move on Eddie and Lena but the pair slip through their fingers. Lena figures out that the bouncer has told the two gunmen where to find Eddie and, when they return to the Hut, she confronts him. A brawl ensues and Eddie unintentionally kills the bouncer with a knife.

Now a fugitive from the law who also is wanted by the mob, Eddie has Lena drive him to his family homestead in South New Jersey, then tells her to go away, fearing for her safety if she is drawn into his brothers' criminal lifestyle. She leaves but returns and the two gunmen shadow her to South Jersey where the tragic denouement of the novel takes place.

I watched Truffaut's film before reading Goodis' book and I have to say the novel is quite superior to the movie. Truffaut slips a number of false notes into his film and adds a younger brother who does not appear in the novel, unnecessarily complicating the plot and making the two mob killers more bungling and buffoonish than they are in the novel.

The novel also is more effective at developing Eddie's back story, and explaining why it is so easy for him to slip into unthinking violence. In my opinion, the novel is also better at conjuring a pervasive atmosphere of doom.

Primary characters are sharply drawn in Goodis' novel and even minor players are rendered in a memorable fashion. The descriptive passages, are first rate at creating an aura of doom and alienation:

"Three years, and aside from the music he made, [Eddie's] presence at the Hut meant nothing. It was almost as though he wasn't there and the piano was playing all by itself. Regardless of the action at the tables or the bar, the piano man was out of it, not even an observer. He had his back turned and his eyes on the keyboard, content to draw his pauper's wages and wear pauper's rags."

The dialog is terse and realistic, free of the frequent wise cracks that are so common to other noir specialists such as Raymond Chandler, but better for it, because Goodis is trying to create a world of people who are down, desperateand unable to see much humor in the bleak world they inhabit, let alone joke about it.

The violence, though understated, is brutal -- which is appropriate because the lives of the main characters is brutal, too.

Whether it is under the imprint of Shoot the Piano Player or Down There, this bleak little novel is well worth reading.

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