Monday, September 21, 2009

The Wounded and the Slain by David Goodis (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

James and Cora Bevan have a miserable marriage. They blame themselves for the problems in it (sexual and otherwise), but invariably look for outside solutions to their despair (he the bottle, she another man) forgoing communication entirely. After nine years of this, they've almost completely given up on happiness, but have decided to take a vacation in Jamaica in hopes of one last chance.

In the first chapter of The Wounded and the Slain, author David Goodis (who is probably best known for writing the books that Dark Passage and Shoot the Piano Player were based on) shows the Bevans wallowing in their self-pity, but also shows the love they still feel for each other. It's a difficult chapter to read, and I nearly drowned in the monotonous sustained self-loathing (especially from James's point of view) pouring from the page. Luckily, by the middle of the second chapter, things got more interesting.

Not happier, mind you, just more interesting.

The Wounded and the Slain is not a pleasant read. It is easy to understand why it has been out of print since its first publication over fifty years ago: I can see potential publisher after potential publisher saying, "Who would want to buy this?" because if you are unfamiliar with the depths of human misery, David Goodis will take you on a guided tour. It takes a publisher with a distinctive vision to look past its dismal sales potential and see its literary and historical merits.

The last book that got me this depressed was Chris Ware's graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, but Ware's medium allows for the use of images to get his point across, where Goodis does it all with words. (Ware's title is misleading, as well, whereas Goodis slaps his intentions right on the title page.)

Goodis's skill at uncommon description is unparalleled. You need only step back from the page for a moment to realize that he is not just telling you about people — he is putting you inside them! The pivotal bar fight in chapter three of The Wounded and the Slain is the best example of this talent: as each blow landed, I knew what each individual was thinking and feeling at that instant, and Goodis deftly switches among the array of characters.

At the end, I felt as if I had been in the middle of the fracas, that every punch had not only been thrown by me, but also had landed on me. It was exhausting, but it was also a revelation: no author had ever gotten me so completely involved ever before.

But despite bringing his readers face to face with such a tragic cadre of silent sufferers, Goodis thankfully cannot resist adding a final note of hope. Allowing for the possibility of redemption, showing us that these characters do indeed have other sides to them, keeps The Wounded and the Slain from being just a succession of scenes in a morose milieu, and makes the characters relatable, giving the book real emotional power.


Dave Lewis said...

Nice review, Craig. It's great to see Goodis stuff back in print.

Lou Boxer said...

David Goodis is a tragically unsong hero of great writing. Great review of only one of his great works.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the kind words, gents.

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