Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: David Goodis’s Dark Passage

Disclaimer: This novel, part of a five-novel collection (Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s) was provided by the publisher for review.

David Goodis’s Dark Passage was first published in 1946, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post before being published in hardback and adapted for a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Dark Passage was Goodis’s big break as a noir writer, and is being reprinted as the first of five novels in The Library of America’s David Goodis collection.

The novel is a claustrophobic, sometimes downright trippy, following of Vincent Parry, a man who escapes from prison after being incarcerated for the murder of his wife. Parry has claimed his innocence all along, and in his escape hopes to find his wife’s real killer. This is a novel in which nothing, and no one, is unimportant. Every person that Parry meets is somehow central to Goodis’s plotting, even if they at first seem little more than background color. There’s a sort of hyperrealism at play here, as Parry’s history, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with the woman who aids him after his escape, and every event between his escape and novel’s close, is exaggerated. Characters’ speech somehow has an element of terseness even at its most verbose, and there is a serious pleasure to watching the speed with which characters are drawn and developed in the pressure cooker environment Goodis has loaned to them.

Goodis early establishes not only Parry’s innocence, but an innocence to his spirit that provides a sharp contrast to his surroundings.

He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.

As clearly as Goodis here draws Parry’s character for the reader, other characters of Dark Passage are able to guess at his motives and movements. Most notably, there’s Irene: a woman whose father was wrongfully convicted of murder and died in prison, and who has followed Parry’s case since his trial. Hearing of his escape from prison, she manages to intercept him and drive him to her apartment in San Francisco, where she urges him to remain in hiding until the manhunt dies down. Irene and Parry develop an odd and intense intimacy, forced by Parry’s lack of options, her money, and her inexplicably strong desire to see his name cleared.

Things, of course, can’t be so simple for Parry as holing up for a couple weeks in the home of a beautiful woman. Insistent that he leave her apartment, he finds himself in the backseat of a cab whose driver has his own interest in helping Parry – and who has a backstreet plastic surgeon for a friend. After getting his face redone, Parry goes to the apartment of his best friend only to find that he’s been murdered. It’s here that Goodis moves into high gear, as Parry attempts to evade law enforcement, the murderer of his friend (and presumably, also, his wife), negotiate his relationship with Irene, and learn who murdered his wife, and why.

The energy coursing beneath Goodis’s writing sometimes belies the coarseness of the prose; but this, like so many other elements to the story, seems perfectly fitting here. The descriptions of violence, the attention Goodis gives to blood in all its shades and spatters, are both gorgeous and representative of his prose:

There was blood all over Fellsinger, blood all over the floor. There were pools of it and ribbons of it. There were blotches of it, big blotches of it near Fellsinger, smaller blotches getting even smaller in progression away from the body. There were flecks of it on the furniture and suggestions of it on a wall. There was the cardinal luster of it and the smell of it and the feeling of it coming up from Fellsinger’s busted skull and dancing around and settling down wherever it pleased. It was dark blood where it clotted in the skull cavities. It was luminous pale blood where it stained the horn of the trumpet that rested beside the body. The horn of the trumpet was slightly dented. The pearl buttons of the trumpet valves were pink from the spray of blood.

Dark Passage is a novel that asks its readers to suspend belief, and rewards them, handsomely, for doing so. This is a novel that bristles with tension, in which every character and every moment is of the utmost importance. It’s one so heavy with atmosphere that it at times feels hard to catch a breath. And whether Goodis takes Parry anywhere other than we expected, it’s a joy to accompany this character as he struggles to clear his name and find freedom, or even happiness.


Check back over the coming weeks for reviews of other novels from the new Library of America Goodis collection, Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s.


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You know, I wrote a three paragraph comment, but your blog decided it didn’t like it so it flushed it away. Angry.

But I’m happy you liked Goodis. You’re right when you say it’s hyperreality. Noir isn’t the real world, it’s the world everybody is afraid of.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

Crap, sorry your first comment got erased. (Is it just me or is everyone, on every blogging platform, having trouble with comments lately?)

Anyway, loved Goodis. When I got this title from the publisher part of me dreaded the thought of having five novels by the same author on my kindle, but now I’m psyched to read the next four. The American noir is definitely treating me better than the French.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I love American writers, because they have very strong awareness of the fucked up society they live in. Noirists more than the others.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

Aaaagh, I love noir so much. Dark Passage is also an extremely trippy flick, so much so that I felt really nauseated during the first half hour. I took a noir film class years ago and later made it my mission to watch all the noir films I could.

I’ve read a good bit, but I haven’t read Goodis. I definitely want to find this one and check out his writing.

Great review!

Comment by jenn aka the picky girl

I just got the movie and am planning to watch it this week. Can’t wait to see how it compares to the novel, and how they translate some of the trippier elements of the book to the screen. There were moments in the novel (especially at the start, when Parry goes from thinking/dreaming about an escape to, BAM, actually ESCAPING, and you can’t find where he shifts from thinking to acting or get any real sense of the timing of things) that were…well, kind of nauseating, and it should be really cool to see those things in a movie.

Hope you do get a chance to check out this book, and that you enjoy it when you do!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I confess to not being exceptionally well-read when it comes to noir. Have you heard of Akashic Books? They’re a New York based publishing house who describe themselves as “dedicated to the reverse-gentrification of the literary world”. Their geographically-specific noir publications seem to be fairly popular. They released a Trinidad Noir, but I admit I found more than a few of the stories within it difficult to appreciate. From reviews I’ve read of the anthology, it seems that the dissatisfying stories don’t really immerse themselves in noir-esque qualities.
Goodis seems like solid noir bedrock, on the other hand. I look forward to your other reviews in this series.

Comment by Shivanee @ Novel Niche

I was going to say I hadn’t heard of Akashic Books, but after looking at their website I realized I’ve had their Bostin Noir anthology on my kindle for a while. I must have added it when I first “discovered” Dennis Lehane, and was looking for anything he had written or edited. I’d be curious to look at their other noir collections, maybe when I teach myself a little more about the genre. This Goodis is only the second piece of noir I’ve read…the first was a French noir novella that I didn’t like, but as Ben pointed out, French noir wasn’t the place for me to introduce myself to the genre. He recommended going with American noir first, and (though I admit I’m making this judgement based on all TWO noir novels I’ve read, so I don’t really have the right to judge) based on the Goodis I think he’s right. Still, the whole idea of the geographically-themed Akashic noir series is pretty cool. I have so much work reading right now that I might (finally) start on the one Lehane edited, stories as palate cleansers, so I can get a better sense of what they’re putting out.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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