The Library of America has recently published a volume of five novels written in the 1940's and 50's by the noir writer David Goodis (1917 -- 1967). David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America) Published in 1947, "Nightfall" is the second novel in the LOA collection. The book was reissued in paperback in the 1950's under several titles, including "The Dark Chase". In the 1950's, the book became well-known. It was adopted for television specials and in 1956 became a film directed by Jacques Tourneur, with stars including Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. I wanted to discuss the novel here, under the single edition, to give it more attention than would be possible in a review of the entire LOA volume.
As "Nightfall" shows, Goodis was a writer who understood aching loneliness as well as crime fiction. Although many places and event are weaved in, the story takes place over two summer days in Greenwich Village, New York City, shortly after WW II. The primary character, Jim Vanning, 33, has served as a Navy officer and is looking forward to resuming his career as a commercial artist and to finding a wife and love. After his discharge in San Francisco, he buys a car and heads East. While in Colorado, he involuntarily becomes involved with a group of robbers who have stolen $300,000 cash from a Seattle bank. Vanning is able to kill one of the criminals in self-defense and he flees with a satchel containing the $300,000 with the intent of going to the police. He loses the satchel in a panic in woods surrounding Denver and becomes a fugitive, eventually winding up in Greenwich Village where he finds a good job as a freelance commercial artist. Both the police and the group of robbers are on Vanning's trail, and he knows it.
This brief outline of the plot does not capture "Nightfall". Goodis offers a portrayal of a tormented man, unsure of what happened and of what he did with the stolen money. Much of the book takes place in Vanning's head through internalized soliloquies as he relives and tries to recreate the events of the evening in Denver that made him a fugitive. In addition to fearing for his safety and life, Vanning suffers from his lonely life and from his need for love, a woman, and a family. He meets a buxom, lonely young divorcee, Martha, 26, and begins a passionate courtship.
Goodis also develops the character of two other male characters. Fraser is a detective who has been trailing Vanning. He is happily married, a father of three, and has a strong interest in human psychology. He knows that Vanning has killed a man, but he is convinced that Vanning is innocent of any crime. The other character, John, is the leader of the three criminals who trace Vanning to New York in their search for the $300,000. Although hardened and brutal, John is not without sympathy as he shares with Vanning his own dreams of love.
Much of the book has a surrealistic tone as Vanning struggles with what happened. During a severe beating from the thugs, Vanning reflects on his dreams for life. Here is a short excerpt from an extended passage in which Goodis gets inside Vanning's mind.
"He had a weakness for the moon. It gave him pain, but he wanted to see it up there. And beyond that want, so far beyond it, so futile, was the want for someone to be at his side, looking at the moon as he looked at it, sharing the moon with him. He was so lonely. And sometimes in this loneliness he became exceedingly conscious of his age, and he told himself he was missing out on the one thing he wanted above all elee, a woman to love, a woman wih whom he could make a home. A home. And children. He almost wept whenever he thought about it and realized how far away it was."
The book includes portrayals of isolated, lonely people, honest struggling individuals and criminals as well, trying to make human connection. Goodis portrays singles in lonely apartments and in bars and restaurants looking for someone else. There are scenes in fleeing taxis, art gallerys, and soda fountains in which the characters somehow share with strangers their loneliness and need for love.
The writing of the book is taut and does what the author wants it to do. Goodis had worked for years churning out stories for pulp magazines, and in the process he learned his craft. The writing in "Nightfall" is not as lyrical as in some other Goodis books, but it is full of psychological acuity and understanding.
"Nightfall" is more optimistic in its vision than some of Goodis. Filled with lonely people and city life, Goodis' novels are getting the attention they deserve through the Library of America volume. I am looking forward to reading more of this author and to discussing him here on Amazon.