He was afraid to go out.

And he realized that. The realization brought on more fright. He rubbed his hands into his eyes and wondered what was making this night such a difficult thing. And suddenly he was telling himself that something was going to happen tonight.

It was more than a premonition. There was considerable reason for making the forecast. It had nothing to do with the night itself. It was a process of going back, and with his eyes closed he could see a progression of scenes that made him shiver without moving, swallow hard without swallowing anything.

The only comparable sense of isolation in American fiction contemporary to Goodis is that of Ralph Ellison's 1952 Invisible Man. But Goodis had no interest in the questions of identity that Ellison was pursuing. Much has been made of noir — on film and in novels — expressing the doubt of postwar America, rejecting the optimism and confidence that was the country's official view of itself, and though that's true, the truth of it depends on placing noir within a broader social context. Even in the isolation that noir trades in, Goodis's characters are more apart than any other writers'. The occasional names of American cities do nothing to ground these novels. The locations of the books are, at their least bleak, cities with recognizable places like restaurants and bars and apartment buildings. At their most despairing they are tenement neighborhoods and skid rows that seem to have been built chiefly to create shadows. The recurrent image is a solitary figure walking these alleyways and sidewalks, utterly separate from even the blighted lives going on inside. In most of the books, daylight might not exist. The characters are cut off from human contact, let alone notions like family, community, society, country. These are not the stylized urban nightscape of a '40s film noir as shot by John Alton. We're closer here to Godard's Alphaville, or a ghetto at the end of the world.

And we are very far from the cynicism and sardonicism that characterize much crime writing. Goodis's heroes are so far from wised up that you couldn't imagine them making a crack if their life depended on it. Most of the time, they are too tongue-tied, too resigned to doom to say anything to save their skin. If you're looking for the tough-guy snap of a pulp thriller, this is not the neighborhood to look in. With an atmosphere that's both rich and suffocating, explicating a state of the soul both romantic and utterly despairing, these novels are the work of the poète maudit of American letters.

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