Monday, 10 March 2014

Down There by David Goodis Review

Noir is one of the most well-defined genres in all literature. However, for better or worse, after writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett popularised the genre, it more-or-less ceased to develop any further. It was so well defined in fact that even by the mid-50s, writers could churn out a recognisably noir novel using the well worn archetypical characters and scenarios. But few could reach the same heights as Chandler, and one of these imitators was David Goodis. 

In Down There, aka Shoot the Piano Player, a honky tonk piano player in a dive bar is caught up in his criminal brother’s schemes and has to help him lose a pair of gangsters who’re hunting him. Meanwhile he falls for the bar waitress and has to keep her safe from his suddenly dangerous life. 

That’s pretty much the story of Down There. It’s not much and that’s my biggest complaint: there’s so little here. Take other noir novels where the protagonist is usually a hard-up gumshoe - the motivation of those kind of books is to find the killer by the end, solve the case, go home and get drunk. Wait for the next case/book and do it all over again. Here, the protagonist is a piano player and as such there’s no driving motivation behind his actions. He meanders most of the novel, tries half-heartedly to avoid a couple low-level gangsters, then he does something to someone and has to leave, there’s a gunfight, the end. 

The lack of any plot wouldn’t be so bad if the characters were there but here too Goodis is lacking. The piano player, Eddie, is a dull man who’s hiding a painful past by playing piano in a dive bar. The backstory is given and it’s kinda sad and also kinda silly in a way - but ultimately not very interesting. And that backstory is a big part of the novel, where you’re either moved by it to care about the character or you don’t. I was the latter. 

The other characters are basically staples of the genre - the tough-talking women, the wise-cracking barflies, the two gangsters riffing on one another in mock bonhomie to scare others. We’ve seen them all before and in better stories elsewhere. 

There’s mood here - the dive bars, the sense of hopelessness, the mostly night scenes, death, misery and tragedy handing over everything - but nothing that really feels unique to this novel. These too are aspects of a noir novel - it’s like Goodis is ticking off boxes on a list. And when a writer like Chandler established mood, he was usually being poetic about his city of choice, Los Angeles, writing about it in a way that made the reader think about it differently as they saw it through the weary eyes of the main character. I’m not sure what city Goodis is writing about but it could be any major American city and his observations are almost like a parody of noir writing. 

The dialogue wasn’t bad as the characters snapped back at one another and I appreciated some of the old timey phrases (“no dice”) for nostalgic value but it’s not enough to recommend this book when there are so many other better noir novels to read over this one. I wonder if Down There would even still be remembered if not for the 1960 Truffaut movie? It is the definition of a generic novel.

David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America)

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