How seriously do you take your noir?
David Goodis’ Street of the Lost (1952) is as down and dirty as noir gets in its depiction of depressed, lost souls on the road to nowhere. No cynical, wisecracking detectives here. Existential angst is too fancy for these characters--more like the very depths of hopeless, day in, day out misery.
But Street of the Lost offers the possibility of redemption, of escape, of explosive revenge. It offers suspense and action, as well as finely crafted settings of ugliness and depravity.
The main character, Chet Lawrence, works as a welder in Philadelphia and is married to a sad, forlorn woman named Edna. But an equally central character is Ruxton Street, a local road that traps residents into lives of crime, violence, drunkenness, drugs, and emptiness.
The enemy was the Street.Twenty years earlier, Lawrence had decided that he needed to detach from the Street. Growing up as a Ruxton “alley cat,” he’d once tried to break up a knife fight but got his gut slashed. He vowed never again to get involved in people’s troubles.
For the Street was like those big snakes he’d seen once in the zoo. Everyone it touched, it swallowed ...
And it glimmered and glistened like a snake. The Ruxton Street pavement was always wet with saliva and phlegm and urine and spilled wine and whiskey and homemade powerhouse. There was always dirty water in the gutters.
It was a street of wooden shacks and decaying tenements. Of broken windows and splintered doors. Of three poolrooms and four taprooms ...
He had it deeply planted in his mind that the Street would never touch him. Yet planted equally deep was the knowledge that he couldn’t get away.Since then, except for a stretch in the Pacific theatre during World War II, Lawrence has trudged regularly from his job to his bleak home, uninvolved and empty.
Street of the Lost opens with an incident that may force an end to Lawrence’s detachment. As he walks home one night, he sees a Chinese girl lying in the filthy water of the Ruxton gutter, bloody and bruised, her skirt torn. Lawrence passes, but then turns to help her up.
The girl thanks Lawrence but refuses to talk about what happened. He assists her on her way, and then continues on home.
What Lawrence doesn’t know is that the girl was attacked by his old buddy Hagen, leader of the Ruxton mob. It’s not a powerful, organized mob; it’s made up of former “alley cats,” now into more serious crimes such as murder, rape, and drug dealing.
Hagen, the leader by intimidation, is an ex-boxer, 250 pounds, with fists that can beat opponents to death.
A few hours after Lawrence’s encounter with the Chinese girl, he and Edna are out at a diner called Sam’s. Hagen soon finds Lawrence there. He enters the diner and corners Lawrence, thinking Lawrence knows that it was he who attacked the girl. But Hagen feels solidarity with old street cats like Lawrence. He simply wants the welder to join him in the Ruxton mob and show that he is scared of Hagen. That’s the way he can gain Hagen’s trust.
But Lawrence doesn’t have it in him to act scared. For years, he’s held back his temper--a rage that twice caused him to fight entire gangs of hoodlums who attacked him, putting a few in the hospital. The reader gets a hint that Lawrence might be a match for Hagen.
Later, at a bar, Lawrence learns from Hagen of his “feelings” for the Chinese girl, as well as his plans for her.
“She’s like a flower, a Chinese lily. ... Extra special, that’s what I call it. A thing I’ve wanted as long as I can remember ...”Hagen’s demented plan is to kidnap the girl and keep her prisoner, raping and torturing her. But, he says, “Maybe she’ll get used to me, get to like me, and really want to stay with me. I’ll do my best to go easy on her.”
Can Lawrence let all this happen? Will he stand up against the kidnapping, rape, and torture of the Chinese girl--stand up to Hagen’s murderous rule of the Street? Or will he stay uninvolved, detached. That’s the core of the story.
A gripping plot is only part of Goodis’s mastery, though. Few writers do noir with Goodis’ dark, moody fluency. The reader lives this story of Ruxton Street through the author’s evocative prose, feels the hopelessness, drowns in the misery and emptiness.
Goodis’ characters and settings are unforgettable. A prostitute named Tillie provides only one example:
She stood there in the doorway, five feet six, 430 pounds, a shapeless boulder of flesh with the face of a cow and big ears that stood out almost at right angles to her skull ...Goodis is unmatched when it comes to putting emotion and precision into fictional fight scenes.
His eyes pretended to be fascinated by the mountain of female flesh, the famous massive torso that for all its flabby shapelessness was Ruxton Street’s most expensive candy. They came here constantly, the seekers of off-beat thrills. In terms of poundage she was the summit of their frenzied climb toward some uncanny kind of pleasure or conquest or whatever the hell it was they were looking for. But sometimes he’d see them walking out of this shack with an utterly beaten look on their faces, as if they’d arrived on the summit only to find that it was lower than any other level on the map of unrighteousness.
He moved in and put all his power into a left to the midsection and he heard the grunt, the wheezing, and saw Hagen doubling up, elbows trying to protect his belly. He kept moving in, and hauled off with his right and told himself that this was going to be the finish. But just then Hagen grabbed again ...The author can even make death lyrical. In a later scene:
He pulled himself off the corpse and took out a handkerchief and stood there wiping the blood from his knuckles. Then he let the handkerchief fall onto the cot. It landed on the chest of the corpse. Some blood dripped off the edge of it and sprinkled the hand of the corpse, the red drops glimmering on the dark fingers that still seemed to be groping for the blackjack.For anyone who can handle a dark tale of hopeless souls--souls who long for escape and redemption--Street of the Lost is truly a “great but forgotten” work.
Definitely forgotten--for the most part, anyway. Street of the Lost is long out of print, and the 30 or so copies currently available online--old musty editions that will likely break apart in your hands--range in price from $40 to $150. There are a few copies of the novel in French, as well, but it’s hard to imagine any translator equaling the quality of Goodis’ writing. Rue Barbare (Barbarous Street), directed by Gilles Béhat, an obscure, undistinguished 1984 French film, was based on Street of the Lost.
I’d like so much to share this noir classic, that I am willing to send my copy free of charge to anyone who wants it--just so long as you promise to pass it along to somebody else who’s interested. (Drop your contact info into the Comments section at the end of this post.) Yes, my copy is mildewed, underlined, and held together with a rubber band--but that doesn’t take away from the quality of this masterful work of noir.
(The author would like to thank Goodis expert Lou Boxer for discussing Street of the Lost with him.)
READ MORE: “David Goodis’s Hard-boiled Philadelphia: Street of the Lost and Moon in the Gutter,” by Jay A. Gertzman (Noir Originals).