Friday, November 17, 2017

FFB: Down There by David Goodis

It has been a long time since I read anything by David Goodis – until now.

My memory of his writing was that it had a hypnotic, nightmare quality.

That impression was reinforced reading his dark, 1956 novel, Down There, which was later reissued under the title, Shoot the Piano Player.

In this story, we meet Eddie, a once-promising pianist, now barely scratching out a living playing piano in a Philadelphia dive bar. He is an odd man, seemingly detached from everything around him. More than detached, he seems to have some connecting wires missing in his brain. He barely reacts to violence, he smiles at the wrong time, and the things that come out of his mouth baffle everyone.

The story starts with a bang – literally – as a man, running through the streets pursued by a couple of gangsters, smacks his face into a light pole. But he keeps running until he gets to the dump where Eddie works. The man is Eddie’s brother who is in big trouble with the mob and needs Eddie’s help getting away from the hitmen.

Eddie seems to barely notice his brother and continues plinking out tunes, grinning, and seeming so detached that a reader might think something is seriously wrong with this musician. That something might run in the family. His brother’s panic and fear turn quickly to lust, first for the tough woman who owns the bar and then for a young waitress.

The hitmen show up and Eddie surprises himself by helping his brother escape. The gangsters lose the brother but turn their attention to Eddie.

When they catch up with him, they force Eddie into their car and go looking for the brother. Riding around, the hoods have a bizarre conversation between themselves that Quentin Tarantino may have read before making “Pulp Fiction.” Then an incident occurs and Eddie is out of the car and on the sidewalk. Here, again, Goodis’ writing has a dreamlike quality.

I will stop at this point because summarizing this noir novel is like trying to recount a dream the next morning. That strange, hazy world Goodis concocts is one of the things that make his writing so unique. The way he does it is interesting. While the story is told in third person, Goodis often switches to first person when inside Eddie’s head, then switches again to second person as Eddie talks to himself about his screwed up family, about how he got away from them to study music, and about how his life came apart.

Reading this strange crime story about this strange character leads me to think Goodis (1917–1967) was acutely aware of the strange behavior of others.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)


  1. I have only read this in Italian - I quite liked it but I do need to be in the right mood to enjoy Goodis' brand of doom, let's put it that way!

  2. Another author I have yet to try, thanks for the reminder.

  3. Goodis was also aware of his own behavior, which was in some ways even stranger than that of his characters. Just as self-destructive, but less inclined towards firearms and fisticuffs.

    Philippe Garnier's "Goodis: A Life in Black and White" (which reads more like a detective novel than a biography at points) is worth reading, if you can find the English translation (or can read French).

    The Truffaut film is good; the book is a lot better. That's a funny thing about Goodis, that he got several very good (and sometimes even reasonably faithful) film adaptations, which still fell short of the books--but most people still only know the movies.

    A flawed but compelling writer.

  4. That dream-like quality reminded me of Kafka. I'll search for this author.

  5. I read only two Goodis novels, in both cases after seeing the films on which they were based: "Down There" ("Shoot the Piano Player") and "Dark Passage." In each case I preferred the movie. The books read like scripts waiting to be brought to life by skillful actors and creatively filmed scenes. Fortunately that did result in two super movies, decidedly underappreciated at the time.