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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Review: Jean-Patrick Machette’s Fatale

If Jean-Patrick Machette’s Fatale represents the height of French noir (this is what the cover tells me) then, hell, I don’t want to read any more. The 90-page novella has its moments – at first there is an appeal to the inscrutable nature of the main character and killer, who we know only as Aimée, and moments verge on the comically absurd – but there is not enough plot or enough coloring of the scene to make this a rewarding read.

Fatale opens with Aimée murdering a man hunting in the woods, then follows her as she travels to her next town, Bléville, refashioning her image on the way. (Changing her hair color seems a standard post-job affair.) The translator’s notes make clear that there’s some meaning to the town’s name, which translates roughly to “Doughville.” Even before arriving Aimée views this town, picked at seeming random, as offering some unique money-making opportunities, a chance for a last big job before she retires. Her relationship with her chosen work and with money are the most interesting things about her character, as when she is traveling to Bléville with the payment from her last job:

She leaned over, still chewing, and opened the briefcase and pulled out fistfuls of banknotes and rubbed them against her sweat-streaked belly and against her breasts and her armpits and between her legs and behind her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she shook with silent laughter and kept masticating. She bent over to sniff the lukewarm choucroute, and she rubbed banknotes against her lips and teeth and raised her glass and dipped the tip of her nose in the champagne. And here in this luxury compartment of this luxury train her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odor of the filthy banknotes and the foul odor of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm. (6-7)

Apart from this, Aimée reads as a dishearteningly one-dimensional character. There’s some reference to an earlier husband and an abusive relationship, but the novella offers no room to explore this history. (Nor is it certain that a novel two or three times the length of Fatale would ever get around to it, Aimée not seeming like a person who cares to reveal herself.) We’re informed that she’s killed seven men before arriving in Bléville, but there’s little to suggest how she came to commit murder for hire. We know only that Aimée doesn’t separate herself from her killings, that she likes to arrive in a town and insinuate herself into the social structure in order to learn who wants who dead; or who, perhaps, most deserves to be dead.

Machette’s vision of Aimée’s world is of one in which only social graces hold people back from killing each other. This allows the action to move quickly, Aimée scarcely arriving in town before finding the affairs and tensions that precede her work, as well as a man who despises the town’s residents as much as she does. The fault here is that Machette’s world, while dark and at times extraordinary, is wholly unbelievable. There is a cartoonish nature to Aimée, the town, the nature of the murders she commits, that is hard to overcome. These things could well make for a novella that is as extraordinary as the oversize world it contains, if only there were a single character in Fatale who reads as more than a broadly-drawn character sketch. Fatale may well be a fine representative of French noir; it’s not, unfortunately, one that makes me want to further explore the genre.


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