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PULP ACCORDING TO DAVID GOODIS by Jay A. Gertzman (October 2018)

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Pulp According to David Goodis starts with six characteristics of 1950s pulp noir that fascinated mass-market readers, making them wish they were the protagonist, and yet feel relief that they were not. His thrillers are set in motion by suppressed guilt, sexual frustrations, explosions of violence, and the inaccessible nature of intimacy. Extremely valuable is a gangster-infested urban setting. Uniquely, Goodis saw a still-vibrant community solidarity down there. Another contribution was sympathy for the gang boss, doomed by his very success. He dramatizes all this in the stark language of the Philadelphia’s “streets of no return.”

The book delineates the noir profundity of the author’s work in the context of Franz Kafka’s narratives. Goodis’ precise sense of place, and painful insights about the indomitability of fate, parallel Kafka’s. Both writers mix realism, the disorienting, and the dreamlike; both dwell on obsession and entrapment; both describe the protagonist’s degeneration. Tragically, belief in obligations, especially family ones, keep independence out of reach.

Other elements covered in this critical analysis of Goodis’s work include his Hollywood script-writing career; his use of Freud, Arthur Miller, Faulkner and Hemingway; his obsession with incest; and his “noble loser’s” indomitable perseverance.


“This was a fascinating read. [Gertzman] appears as an expert not only on Goodis’s body of work but on the pulp era of fiction in general, mid-twentieth-century American history, Philadelphia history, literary analysis, and a litany of other subjects. The book is stylishly written and well designed for reaching a broader, nonacademic audience interested in the pulp’s history, role in American culture, and meaning. Frankly, the crime fiction community needs more books like this!” —Chris Rhatigan, editor, publisher, and writer of hard-boiled and noir literature

“Jay Gertzman is one of those rare maverick critics with the courage to explore the dark alleys of American literature, and to report back with commendable honesty about what he has found. His book Pulp According to David Goodis is a perfect match of critic to author, and it belongs in the collections of universities hoping to be regarded as major.” —Michael Perkins, author of Evil Companions, Dark Matter, and The Secret Record: Modern Erotic Literature

“The most comprehensive Goodis study yet. Gertzman culls the files, brings everything together and then some. Not only essential reading for all Goodis obsessives but an excellent introduction to one of noir’s greatest writers.” —Woody Haut, author Pulp Culture: Hard-boiled Fiction and the Cold War, Heartbreak and Vine, and Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction

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2 reviews for PULP ACCORDING TO DAVID GOODIS by Jay A. Gertzman

  1. Kurt Brokaw

    Move over, Geoffrey O’Brien and Robert Polito. “Pulp According to David Goodis” (Down & Out Books, 2018) is Jay A. Gertzman’s herculean, 264-page analysis of Philadelphia’s champion of the Noble Loser. You know the movies and their rushing- toward-doom anti-heroes—Bogart in Dark Passage, Ray in Nightfall, Depardieu in Moon in the Gutter, Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player, Duryea in The Burglar.

    Gertzman assembles not just full-body strip searches of the author’s male and female characters, motivations and behavior, but intimate, block-by-block tours of the Philadelphia environs—today and in mid-20th century—in which Goodis set his bleak paperback originals. It’s crime scene digging of the first order, footnoted clear to hell, and it delivers a whole new understanding of this odd duck who turned his back on big league Hollywood potential to return to his Philly childhood bedroom, Dock Street dives and a late life obsession with “grossly sensual” African-American women. There he’d write 11 more novels plus The Burglar screenplay in six years, dying in 1967 before turning 50.

    Jim Thompson was lionized by O’Brien as a Dimestore Dostevesky, and now Gertzman has built a convincing portrait of David Goodis as a Kraft-Ebbing Kafka. Goodis and Kafka? Don’t let Gertzman’s Ph.D. and academic credentials scare you off. This is the real deal by a Goodis pub-crawler who can write as clearly as he thinks, who gets that Goodis moved “unbendingly toward oblivion, if only to stop the whole business.” —Kurt Brokaw, Senior Film Critic of The Independent

  2. Robin Friedman

    American artistic accomplishment can be found in seemingly unlikely places. At the time of his death, David Goodis (1917 — 1967) and his paperback original pulp fiction had been virtually forgotten. Gradually, some readers developed an interest in Goodis. In 1997, the Library of America included his novel “Down There” in a volume of 1950’s noir fiction. In 20012, the LOA published a volume devoted to Goodis, including five additional novels. These two volumes helped me and many other readers discover Goodis. Interest in Goodis has continued to grow, as evidenced by this new study by Jay Gertzman, Professor Emeritus of English at Mansfield University, “Pulp According to David Goodis”.

    Born in Philadelphia, Goodis worked as a Hollywood screen writer and wrote several novels before returning to Philadelphia where he lived in his parents’ home for the rest of his life. In Philadelphia, Goodis wrote the series of “paperback originals” or pulp fiction for which he is best–known today. Gertzman’s book delves deeply into Goodis’ life and writings with an emphasis on several of the books he wrote upon his return to Philadelphia with their lyrically dark exploration of Philadelphia’s lower-class neighborhoods and their inhabitants.

    Gertzman places Goodis and pulp writing within the context of American literature. Goodis and other pulp writers once were not taken seriously, a situation that has fortunately changed. Gertzman distinguishes between American “authors” who wrote serious, thoughtful books for demanding readers and American “writers” who wrote to be popular and to entertain. Goodis self-described himself as in the latter category. With the market for throwaway pulp paperbacks that sold for about a quarter, Goodis and his publishers aimed to reach a large market. Gertzman develops six characteristics of the genre crime, noir novels Goodis wrote which were designed to appeal to readers seeking a titillating read through identifiable characters and situations. If that were all there was to Goodis, he would not deserve the attention he has received. Gertzman shows how Goodis took the conventions in which he worked and developed them with originality and feeling based largely on his own creativity and experiences. The distinction between “author” and “writer” or between “serious” literature and “trash” ultimately becomes blurred and in the case of a gifted author such as Goodis seriously misleading.

    Gertzman combines analysis of Goodis’ novels with analysis of the work of Freud and Kafka, among others. He offers a history of Philadelphia in the years after WW II as it became the setting of much of Goodis’ writing. Gertzman discusses the themes that pervade Goodis’ fiction, including poverty, fate, the failed search for intimacy, conflicts in recognizing and fulfilling one’s sexual needs, entrapment in a destructive way of life, loneliness, and ultimately, the possibility of a redeemed life in the middle of failure. The Goodis hero as a “noble loser” and the characterization of Goodis’ writing as “doomed romanticism” are themes that run through this study.

    In his opening chapter, Gertzman offers a detailed reading of Goodis’ 1952 paperback original “Street of the Lost” and shows how this violent work about failed individuals on a bleak Philadelphia street in captures the themes of Goodis’ output in its own inimitable way.

    In his final chapter, Gertzman offers a detailed analysis of Goodis’ final novel “Somebody’s Done For” (1967), one of Goodis’ less accessible titles. Readers of Goodis have mixed responses to this late title, with some disliking the book and others finding it a masterpiece in its way. Gertzman is of the latter opinion and discusses the book convincingly and well, concluding that it is a “tragedy of the common man”. I learned a great deal about Goodis from Gertzman’s discussion of this rare novel.

    Gertzman also offers thematically-oriented discussions of Goodis novels, centering upon those set in Philadelphia, including “Cassidy’s Girl” “The Moon in the Gutter”, “Street of No Return” the “Blonde on the Street Corner” and “Down There” (which became a famous movie, “Shoot the Piano Player”) His discussions of these books are wonderfully evocative. He discusses “Of Tender Sin”, which explores themes of incest as it wanders through Philadelphia’s mean streets. Gertzman also offers a perceptive reading of “The Burglar”, a work with a discussion of the nature of loyalty and morality which also became a film with Jayne Mansfield as a major character. This novel is readily accessible in the LOA volume.

    Gertzman devotes a chapter of his study to a discussion of Kafka and to parallels between Kafka and Goodis. He uses Kafka with insight at several points in his study. While the discussion of Kafka is illuminating, I found that this study works best when it focuses on Goodis’ own books and on his life and on the settings of his writings.

    I became absorbed and Gertzman’s study and wanted to think about Goodis again, to reread the works I know and to read some of his books for the first time. The book helped me understand why I was so taken with Goodis when I found him. He may not be for every reader. Those who love Goodis and who are interested in noir and pulp fiction will learn a great deal from Jay Gertzman’s study.

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