David Goodis,
Shoot the Piano Player
(Vintage, 1990)

I rank David Goodis at the very top of noir writers, and I've read a lot of noir fiction. A Philadelphian, he wrote some books that got Hollywood interested (his Dark Passage was lensed with Bogart and Bacall), but he ended up back in Philly living in an apartment above the garage next to his parents' house, where he turned out some of the most emotionally stark noir books ever written. He drank in seedy bars, hung with hookers and lowlifes. He died too early, of alcoholism.

We meet Eddie playing piano in a saloon called Harriet's Hut. It's the kind of place where the waitress, Lena, carries a hat pin to stab any men who get too fresh. Eddie's a quiet, melancholy guy who just wants to be left alone. Fat chance. One night, one of his hoodlum brothers barges into Harriet's with two thugs hot on his heels. Quick action by Eddie helps his brother escape. Now, the two thugs are interested in Eddie. His quiet life is over.

Ironically, as Eddie's troubles mount, love comes into his lonely existence via Lena, the waitress, who was touched by Eddie's loyalty to his brother. As their relationship grows, we learn Eddie's past, including the time he was a celebrated concert pianist with a career of fame and fortune ahead of him, before events that left him a broken man.

Don't get me wrong. This book is no lace-hanky weepie. It's filled with danger, chases, narrow escapes and gunplay. But the way Goodis intertwines the action with a budding love story is fascinating. The ending is, incredibly, both violent and poignant.

No wonder a critic said of Goodis, "His books are suicide notes."

book review by
Dave Sturm

26 February 2011

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