Wednesday, June 10, 2009

First Lines: David Goodis

Invariably, whenever I start a David Goodis novel I have to set it aside and let the first sentence sink in and slowly drag me down, down, always down. It only takes a few words for Goodis to fully transport you into his gloomy world of gutters, alleys and dives. His novels are the incessant thoughts of 3AM, when its too late to sleep and too early to rise, when you stumble through backlogs of regret and disappointment; that solitary time when you can’t be anything but honest with yourself, even when you don’t like what you have to say.

Seeing how his novels are so thematically consistent, I wanted to see how his first lines would match up if they were all put together. The result is just the sort of dark, brooding poetry that is characteristic of Goodis. Even though both Philadelphia and New York are mentioned, the discrepancy hardly matters: the place is singularly Goodis, that landscape of urban desolation. And the characters, regardless of their names, are but variations on the theme of the loser with his head hung low and his eyes aimed even lower.

I’ve listed the first lines twice. First, I’ve arranged the opening lines in chronological order in the form of a poem (of sorts), so you can see the way the sentences really flow into one another over the course of his entire career. Second, I’ve broken up the lines and provided bibliographic data (the name of the book the line comes from, and date of publication).

***

After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business.
It was a tough break.

It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age.

Next door they were having another fight.

He didn’t like the look in her eyes.

It was raining hard in Philadelphia as Cassidy worked the bus through heavy traffic on Market Street.

It began with a shattered dream.

On Ruxton Street, at ten past ten, the Chinese girl was flat on her back in the gutter.

At three in the morning it was dead around here and the windows of the mansion were black, the mansion dark purple and solemn against the moonlit velvet green of gently sloping lawn.

At the edge of the alleyway facing Vernon Street, a gray cat waited for a large rat to emerge from its hiding place.

January cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him.

There were three of them sitting on the pavement with their backs against the wall of a flophouse.

Ralph stood on the corner, leaning against the brick wall of Silver’s candy store, telling himself to go home and get some sleep.

At the other end of the bar it was crowded, and at this end he stood alone, drinking a gin-and-tonic.

There were no street lamps, no lights at all.

In the brick-paved alley some of the bricks were missing and the woman stumbled as she hurried along, her head lowered against a slashing wind.

At 11:20 a fairly well-dressed boozehound came staggering out of a bootleg-whiskey joint on Fourth Street.

There was no land in sight.


***

“After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business.” (Retreat from Oblivion, 1939)

“It was a tough break.” (Dark Passage, 1946)

“It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age.” (Nightfall, 1947)

“Next door they were having another fight.” (Behold this Woman, 1947)

“He didn’t like the look in her eyes.” (Of Missing Persons, 1950)

“It was raining hard in Philadelphia as Cassidy worked the bus through heavy traffic on Market Street.” (Cassidy’s Girl, 1951)

“It began with a shattered dream.” (Of Tender Sin, 1952)

“On Ruxton Street, at ten past ten, the Chinese girl was flat on her back in the gutter.” (Street of the Lost, 1952)

“At three in the morning it was dead around here and the windows of the mansion were black, the mansion dark purple and solemn against the moonlit velvet green of gently sloping lawn.” (The Burglar, 1953)

“At the edge of the alleyway facing Vernon Street, a gray cat waited for a large rat to emerge from its hiding place.” (The Moon in the Gutter, 1953)

“January cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him.” (Black Friday, 1954)

“There were three of them sitting on the pavement with their backs against the wall of a flophouse.” (Street of No Return, 1954)

“Ralph stood on the corner, leaning against the brick wall of Silver’s candy store, telling himself to go home and get some sleep.” (The Blonde on the Street Corner, 1954)

“At the other end of the bar it was crowded, and at this end he stood alone, drinking a gin-and-tonic.” (The Wounded and the Slain, 1955)

“There were no street lamps, no lights at all.” (Down There, 1956)

“In the brick-paved alley some of the bricks were missing and the woman stumbled as she hurried along, her head lowered against a slashing wind.” (Fire in the Flesh, 1957)

“At 11:20 a fairly well-dressed boozehound came staggering out of a bootleg-whiskey joint on Fourth Street.” (Night Squad, 1961)

“There was no land in sight.” (Somebody’s Done For, 1967)

5 comments:

  1. Wow, what a concept. I think it's really cool you did this. The way it unfolds is really remarkable. I'd never heard of Goodis, actually, but this is as good of an introduction that I'll find, I think! Thanks for taking the time to do this.

    As a kind of comic (because I'm sure it would be more comical) sidepiece, would you mind if I tried this with all of the Chick Bowdrie stories?

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  2. Never mind. It's not as funny as I thought it would be.

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  3. Oh, shoot! That's too bad, but feel free to use the concept with your own favorite writers. There are a couple other people I'd be curious to try this with, though I'm not sure what the results would be like.

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  4. It's a great concept and a great selection of lines. Jealous, I am!

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  5. Hey, it's like something John Ashbery could've written!

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