The Blonde on the Streetcorner

David L. Ulin reviews 'The Blonde on the Streetcorner' by David Goodis.

Published March 13, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

David Goodis is a lost master of hard-boiled fiction, a writer who has never received his due. Born in Philadelphia in 1917, he enjoyed early success when his 1946 thriller "Dark Passage" was made into the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall film of the same name. Yet while a number of his subsequent novels were also filmed -- most famously "Down There," on which Frangois Truffaut based "Shoot the Piano Player" -- Goodis retreated into oblivion after "Dark Passage," churning out paperback originals that are compelling for their bleakness, the utter hopelessness of their point of view. By the time he died in 1967, Goodis was all but forgotten, and although in the last decade several of his books have been "rediscovered," that status has remained essentially unchanged.

The latest Goodis title to be resurrected is "The Blonde on the Street Corner," a 1954 novel that's never been reissued until now. The story of Ralph Creel, a Philadelphia down-and-outer, it follows the basic formula of Goodis' work -- first, he establishes a world without possibilities, then sets his characters loose within it, condemning them to degradation and despair. Ralph is a perfect example: An aspiring songwriter, his prospects are summed up by the friend who tells him, "We got a gorgeous ballad here, but a lot of good it's gonna do us to send it to those phonies in New York." Even when Ralph meets his "dream girl," Edna Daly, he understands that she is out of reach; instead, he turns to the blonde of the title, which means "the end of all hoping for a cleaner better life." About the best Ralph gets is one brief moment of lucidity, to let him know what he has lost. "In the darkness," Goodis writes, "under his eyelids he could see the shabby house where Edna Daly lived. Edna was standing on the doorstep. For an instant, he saw her clearly, then gradually she faded, like something floating out of a dream."

What's fascinating about "The Blonde on the Street Corner" is how of a piece it is with Goodis' other books. Virtually every one of his characteristic themes is in evidence here. First, there's the idea of a man caught between two women, one innocent and the other destructive, which recurs throughout his oeuvre. But even more to the point is his tendency to write about artists who have, in one way or another, fallen on hard luck. Ralph is just one in a long line of Goodis antiheroes, like Whitey, who goes from crooner to skid row alcoholic in "Street of No Return," or Hart, the painter protagonist of "Black Friday," who becomes a criminal on the run. Reading about these figures, it's hard not to see Goodis' story within them, as if his novels were less pieces of fiction than installments in one long autobiographical work.

Ultimately, there's nothing remarkable about this, except for the acuity with which Goodis traces the trajectory of broken dreams. That's the case with "The Blonde on the Street Corner," which from the outset exudes a not-so-quiet desperation, making no false promises about how it will end. Not much happens in this novel, but not much is meant to, except for the inexorable disappointment of being alive. In such a universe, all one can do is sit "alone and [look] out the window, at the gray pavement and the dull black street and the gray sky."

By David L. Ulin

David L. Ulin is the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith," just out in paperback from Penguin Books.

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