Friday, January 7, 2011

"Fire in the Flesh" by David Goodis (Gold Medal, 1957)

Forty-four years ago today, on January 6, 1967, David Loeb Goodis passed away. To celebrate his legacy, I am writing about Fire in the Flesh. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1957, it was the second to last book he saw in print during his lifetime.

David Goodis didn’t write about happy people. That’s an understatement. His pages were crowded with crushed lives and discarded dreams. The denizens of Fire in the Flesh surely rank among the sorriest, sorrow-sodden lot in all of Goodis’ fiction.

In Fire in the Flesh, five people were burned to death in a second story apartment, and everyone is looking for Blazer, a homeless firebug with a fondness for muscatel wine. The cops want to question him as a suspect; Clem Daggart and his crew of bootleggers want to get revenge for the death of Lew Daggart, Clem’s brother who was killed in the fire; and Cora, another lost soul, wants to save Blazer’s life, if there’s anything left behind the drunken haze.

At this point in Goodis’ career, plot had dwindled to the barest frameworks, like a rotted structure ready to collapse any minute. But in Goodis’ world, sometimes this is the only thing his characters have to call a home. Mood was always the author’s strongest suit, with a rhapsodic and melancholic sway. This is where Fire in the Flesh excels. Philadelphia has never seemed so cold and barren as it is presented here. We first meet Blazer asleep in a coffin-like abandoned car in an automobile graveyard. From there, he and Cora flee through maze-like alleys and deserted lots overflowing with garbage, finally seeking shelter in a rundown apartment whose walls and ceilings threaten to cave in at any moment.

In earlier books, failed but talented artists were reoccurring protagonists. They at least had some redeeming facet, some faint glimmer of ability and hope. The characters in Fire in the Flesh don’t even have that to cling to. Only Clem once showed promise as a high school student, but even that was beaten out of him by his brother Lew, forcing Clem to drop out before he finished his degree. Blazer distributes flyers or anything else that will net him the 29 cents needed for the muscatel, which he drinks with Burt Promfret in a cold, unlit basement, where the two of them hide from Burt’s obese, tyrannical wife. The rest of the characters are similarly stuck in an ambitionless rut, epitomized by this line of dialogue: “We can’t get nowhere… Only thing we can do is stay in these alleys, and I swear if it gets any colder…” Goodis’ characters are forever trapped in the gutter, and book after book things only get worse for them. On the shelf together, they form one big, unhappy family that is incapable of bettering themselves.

Fire in the Flesh is written from an unstable third-person perspective, occasionally lapsing into first-person narration from a variety of characters. It’s an unconventional approach, but Goodis pulls it off rather smoothly. Stylistically, there’s nothing to distinguish the different voices – they’re all unmistakably David Goodis. Some might consider that haphazard, or you could consider all the characters as extensions of some facet of Goodis’ own persona. Personally, I side with the latter. Too little is known about his private life, but on the page he created a surrogate existence with a developed and complex biography that reveals a great deal about his own life. At least we can speculate as much. Struggles with both personal and professional failure, social alienation, substance dependency, domineering females, submissive males, family trauma – these topics repeatedly appear throughout Goodis’ work. He seems to identify so closely to these issues, as though he is trying to work out something deeply personal on the page.

More so than in any of his other books, the division between “good” and “bad” characters is blurred to an ambiguous, empathetic compromise. Clem Dagget, who is supposed to be the villain, reveals himself to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the whole novel. He’s built up to be a feared, ruthless kingpin – but whenever we encounter him, his violence is directed inward more often than not. He’s as troubled as Blazer, and both of them have fallen so far that for the moment they’ve given up trying to climb out of their rut, out of their depression. But there’s something surprising about all of the characters, whether its something they do, a motivation for an action, or a piece of their past. The solution to the mystery is shockingly banal and understandable (which doesn’t excuse it, but at least it explains it). Fire in the Flesh might be short, but Goodis makes every page count.

After Fire in the Flesh, Goodis would only live to see one more book in print, Night Squad (1961, Gold Medal). Within 10 years, he would be dead, all too young, at the age of 49. His final book – and masterpiece, in my opinion – Somebody’s Done For, was published after his passing in 1967.

Here are a few of my favorite passages from Fire in the Flesh:

“The desk was a wreck. Dagget sagged to his knees. He stayed there, kneeling as though in fervent supplication. Then very slowly he shook his head, sadly refusing the supplicant. As he got to his feet, it seemed he was falling instead of rising. There was a certain dullness in his eyes, a certain look that said, It’s the escalator going down and where it stops don’t matter.”

“But what Clem didn’t know, these Purcell gutters run very deep and climbing the walls sure as hell ain’t no cinch. Or maybe he did know, which made the climbing all the harder when the world said, Who you kidding? You wear the button-down collar and the college-style tie but it’s just a Hallowe’en getup. You’re strictly Purcell merchandise and we’re all agreed you don’t rate up here. So get back, bum. Get back and get down where you belong.”

“Curled up there against the wall, his knees pulled up high and his arms crossed over his chest, he closed his eyes and gave a sigh of utter fatigue. And made the long plunge into dead-tired, limb-frozen, fully blacked-out slumber.”

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Cover art by Barye Phillips

6 comments:

  1. Today marks the 44th year since David Goodis died. May he rest in eternal peace!


    Anthony Boucher
    New York Times, September 1. 1957
    David Goodis' FIRE IN THE FLESH is the odd story of a drunken firebug, uncertain whether or not he set the blaze that killed the brother of a gang boss. Under the tension of pursuit by both the gang and the police, his long-unused brain is stimulated to solve the killing and even to achieve a sort of self-psychoanalysis. A little too pat, the book has a good deal of harsh power, strong narrative movement and flashes of a curious black humor.

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  2. I understand, Cullen, that you are expected down here at the pilgrimage to Goodis's grave and the subsequent tour of Goodis's Philly this weekend...

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  3. Terrific review! I want to drop everything and read some David Goodis!

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  4. Don't think I have this one. Need to fix that.

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  5. All things considered I wish I was in Philadelphia. Didn't Fields say that?

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  6. Great review! Definitely makes me want to track it down.

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