icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

author's blog 

Lilith, Hasidic Folklore in a Pulp Crime Paperback, 1952

A sister, a Lilith, a monster of the morbid imagination. Serpent's Tale edition of the novel
David Goodis’ _Of Tender Sin_ (1952) was published as a mass-market pulp novel of mean streets, crime, and forbidden love (“strange bypaths of his own twisted emotions”). Beyond those selling points are sexual desire thwarted by a primordial sense of guilt, sado-masochism, incest, romantic idealism contrasted with demeaning lust, and a vivid picture of slum life in post-war America. These topics appeared in many crime novels by writers such as Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Dorothy B Hughes, Horace McCoy, and others. What is exceptional in Of Tender Sin is not, therefore, his allusions to Freud, Faulkner, Hemingway, or Kafka, or that Goodis used folklore and myth to drive his narrative pace. What was unique was that Goodis chose biblical and Hasidic story involving deadly storms, doppelgangers and demons, especially Lilith. If there is a more noirish work of literature than the Old Testament (Tanack), shout it out.

Goodis was not trying to revolutionize the pulp genre or improve the sophistication with which his readers approached fiction. Beyond the importance of “filling my belly,” he was driven by the same spiritual need that drove any writer: he wrote to understand his psyche and his world. These two motives are never clearer than in _Of Tender Sin_, his second “paperback original.” The protagonist Al Darby’s rape of his sister Marjorie—-the “tender sin,” since they had been embracing when Al momentarily lost his reason--is indicated by his “tast[ing] the delightful flavor of her mouth” and her “Oh, what are you doing . . . stop doing that.” Al was 12; his sister 15.

The term “noir” is now used to honor Goodis and his colleagues. The Library of America subtitled its Goodis volume as _Five Noir Novels of the 40s and 50s_. In noir, the evil does not go away; there is no inherent, essential order to be restored, only the warlike culture in which we exist, but which protects “decent” citizens from that awareness. The French were early admirers of American crime novels, and especially Goodis. His protagonists confront not only their enemies but also their motives and the hostility of others. It causes disorienting changes in awareness of who they are, how they act, and what they might become. The ill-defined, yet omnipresent proximity to pain, bodily and emotional, is a constant. When its results are laid out profoundly, pulp becomes noir.

Goodis made industrial age Philadelphia’s Skid Row with its greasy spoons, dive bars, and drug dens, and to a lesser extent the streets and alleys of working class Kensington, not only completely recognizable but also figures of mythical fascination, which in this novel are strongly suggestive of those in Hasidic tales and folklore: demons or wise men and women wearing ragged clothes but actually willing to feel for a stranger. A pair of ferocious thieves, Rook and Chango, appear out of the dark. Rook is “a tiny man with the face of a mouse,” and Chango is “a huge man wearing a ragged checkered hat and a sailor’s pea jacket.” They confront the protagonist, Al, in the flop house where he has taken shelter after running away from a “shattered,” and emotionally shattering, nightmare that begins the novel. Goodis offers one of the most detailed depictions of this kind of “shelter”: the plywood partitions, the narrow cots, the glaring overhead lights, the inch-thick dust hiding swarms of vermin, and the whiskey-cough and cigarette-cough of the men. Later, Rook and Chango attempt to rob and murder a friend of Al’s in his cut-rate drug store.

Al also finds on Race Street, in a condemned building serving as a marketplace for drugs, an addict, Woodrow, whose gentle probing, and that of some of the other fugitives at the den, bring Al as close as possible to what drove him out of his home and is really simmering in his fevered subconscious (“You’re inflicting a penalty on yourself”). Perhaps Goodis had the concept of a shtetl tsaddik in mind. Woodrow represents a frequent Goodis minor character, wise and empathetic.

In Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” he specifies that which we might call otherworldly as what a person tries to keep hidden but has come into the open. Al’s sister has reappeared, in the form of a former girlfriend, Geraldine Barrett, in his “shattered dream” that begins the novel. Geraldine has the same platinum blonde as his sister. Too enslaved by guilt to recall what he did with the latter at age 12, Al substitutes Geraldine, a sadist whose first act is to carve her initial into his chest with her fingernail. “You’re mine now.” The beloved sibling disappears into his torturer.
Geraldine’s eeriness is connected to what seem to be sinister otherworldly powers. Al is surprised, on one visit, to see her awake and dressed before dawn. She seems to exist in, and almost to appear out of, shadows (her house is always dark), and to exist, waiting patiently, only to give Al pleasure and pain. She knows he will be back. She is inside him, and he knows it. “Now you’re mine again. And this time you won’t get away.” Blood is a kind of food and drink to her, especially Al’s. Only when her sadism is most irresistible to Al does she call him “darling.” Equally weird is her “cackling,” which substitutes for laughter.

If Goodis knew the story of Lilith as she appears in Hasidic biblical commentary, he may have had this primordial demoness in mind. Born from Adam’s side, he rejected her as disobedient, and she was dispatched by God to the dark unholy regions, where she mated with Samael (Satan), and existed as a jealous, evil-eyed, power-intoxicated opposite of God-fearing mankind. According to the _Zohar_, the Kabbalistic interpretation of the Five Books of Moses, Lilith attempts to impede childbirth and thus stop the course of history, i.e., God’s destiny for man. Geraldine’s misanthropy is a Lilith-like negation of life, symbolized by shekinah, or light. Speaking about her cocaine dreams, or possibly dropping her mask as a woman from Kensington and letting the Lilith show through (“I’ve really been to Arabia”), she tells Al about wanting a “box seat right next to Nero in the Coliseum, and watch[ing] the lions coming out. See the naked boys and girls running around. . . . Or sometimes I visit the hospitals, and drag them [the lions’ victims] out of bed and open them up without giving them ether. You’d be amazed what sounds they can make.”

Making love with Al, she becomes triumphantly ecstatic possibly because, like Lilith, she is weakening her partner, causing him impotently to spill his seed.
After Raphael Patai’s exhaustive recounting of the Lilith myth and its pagan antecedents, he concludes “The Liliths were the most developed products of the morbid imagination [in Geraldine’s case, that of Al Darby].” Of Tender Sin exemplifies Freud’s analysis of the uncanny as a sensation of terror when something stored deep in the subconscious, involving the familial origins of sexuality, fights its way to recognition. Childhood displacement of a male infant’s love of the mother onto a sister (Marjorie), followed in adulthood by fixation on an substitute (Geraldine’s hair style and color), can mean that the latter becomes an uncanny fetish even as he/she provides orgasmic release.

Geraldine’s black magic is broken when Al sees in her medicine cabinet a bottle of peroxide, realizing at that moment that his sister had also dyed her hair. She realizes that her spell has been (temporarily?) broken. Al goes home. This denouement is peremptory. Irrational drives and the defense mechanisms that produce them are difficult to bring to consciousness, let alone to eradicate. Goodis provides a hint of an authentic ending to Of Tender Sin. Geraldine tells Al she would have waited 16 years, not just six, for him to return, “to have you here, just like I have you now, for the rest of my life.” Her face is “the color of milk” as she speaks. Al thinks:
“Beyond the wanting of the flesh, he wanted the Arabian queen who ruled without mercy, who demanded the fantastic and the downright impossible. Who gave him poison to drink and made him like it. And most of all he wanted this portrait constantly before his vision, the pale green eyes and the platinum blonde hair."

That is the noir ending, the one that make some readers shudder with recognition the finality of seductively binding psycho-sexual compulsions. Goodis realized his publisher would not allow the hero of a throwaway entertainment to remain so paralyzed that he could not return to wife, career, an orderly life. (Interestingly, other pulp paperback writers did so end their stories, especially Jim Thompson). As Al leaves Geraldine’s house, “something caused him to turns and look back” at Geraldine “going farther and farther away and gradually drowning in the shadows.” Will he be back?

You might, having gotten this far, ask yourself who David Goodis was. An early success (_Dark Passage_) was followed by a mediocre career as screenwriter. From 1950 on, he lived with his parents in middle-class Philadelphia, writing in his bedroom. At home in all companies, he went to an upscale synagogue with his parents every Saturday, had many buddies, loved the beach and boxing matches, and took care of his schizophrenic brother. Any publicity (his _Down There_ was filmed by Truffaut in 1960) disturbed him, but he was not a recluse. From time to time, he disappeared into the African-American neighborhoods of north or south Philadelphia, taking no one and saying nothing about these excursions. There is some evidence that he wanted to pick up women who were willing, as foreplay, to abuse him verbally or physically. This routine was constant. He died a few years after his parents, in 1967, at 50. That is the age at which the protagonist’s father died in his last novel, _Somebody’s Done For_ , “mostly because he was fed up with himself.” It’s a ghostly echo of the first sentence in Goodis’ first novel: “After a while, it gets so bad you want to stop the whole business.”

[I have a website, “Pulp According to David Goodis,” at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Pulp-According-to-David-Goodis/745231742194171. I hope one day it will grow into a book.]

Post a comment