Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: Down There

Down There Down There by David Goodis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you read something in a Library of America edition, you expect it to be pretty good. It’s like expecting to find good paintings at the Chicago Art Institute. What’s the place for if not for hanging the best of the best?

So that’s the virtue and the deficit of reading this “pulp fiction/classic” an oxymoron of categories. If something’s pulp (or “crime fiction” as the volume’s title calls it) then it’s supposed to be temporary. It’s not supposed to last, and that’s not just part of how it’s made. It’s part of the aesthetic, too. I once knew a guy who liked to play classical music in a noisy bar. He may have been pretty good (I didn’t know enough about classical music to know) but part of what made it memorable was that he knew whatever art he had wouldn’t echo long enough for any but a handful of proximate few to hear it.

Goodis was a pulp writer, and his hero here is a gifted classical pianist who finds himself “Down There” in a run-down bar among people with almost nothing going for them. Goodis is also a pretty good writer, so this not only moves from the very beginning, but it covers a lot of ground. In the best of ways, I got to the final pages far more quickly than I realized, and then I had to savor the few remaining ones as I wrapped it all up.

I think I’d like this even if I were reading it out of historical context. As a book it holds up even alongside the good stuff being written today. I’m not sure it’s as hard-hitting or nuanced as what Dennis Lehane does, but to turn it around, I don’t know that Lehane could do what he does without a foundation that includes Goodis and what he showed was possible in noir. In any case, even as a book you just pick up, this works pretty well. Maybe some of it seems a bit clichéd, but then that’s probably because Goodis invented some of those clichés.

Reading it in that historical context, it’s all the more impressive. Eddie is a musician, but his being an artist seems (in my still limited reading) a break-through. He’s a tough guy, hardboiled through a backstory that comes to us a bit more clumsily than the good ones do it today, but he’s also consumed by what it means to create something more than just the stuff of everyday life. He goes beyond the Hammett tough guy, beyond the Chandler wannabe knight, beyond the Cain hero caught in a web he can’t see until too late. He is, as ever, a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the author, but, as an artist, he is even moreso; he’s making art, or trying to, even as the world around him barely gives a damn.

Yeah, that’s one more way for a writer to show he’s sorry for himself, but that doesn’t make it less interesting. All these techniques, all the noir moves, constitute a technology for telling stories. Goodis helped create that technology and, along the way, he told some pretty good stories. How strange that this one, presumably his best, now sits in what passes for a museum, something disposable that we’ve decided has a place on the most solid of shelves.

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