Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: CASSIDY'S GIRL (1951) by David Goodis

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

He's seeking redemption even before he realizes it.

Born and raised in Oregon, James Cassidy was once a veritable poster boy for the American success story. He has come a long way since then—a long way down. A star  high school football player, he excelled academically and on the field in college. After college he flew B-24s during WWII, then came home and got a good-paying job that allowed him to live stylishly in a New York City apartment, wear expensive suits, and mingle with high society types.

But then disaster struck, a disaster unforeseeable and therefore unpreventable. Cassidy didn't cause it, but investigators and the public refused to believe him. After losing his job he returned home to his Oregon small town. Nobody there believed him either and "he began to realize the full impact of personal tragedy. A week after he left Oregon he started to drink." He drank, brawled, and gambled his way across the country, on more than one occasion spending time in jail for various offenses. Eventually he wound up in Philadelphia and now lives in an apartment in a tenement building in the waterfront district with the voluptuous Mildred, a shiftless sybarite whom he met in a dive called Lundy's Place and married after a brief booze- and lust-ridden "courtship." The marriage is loveless but still occasionally lusty.

Cassidy has a job with a small bus company and regularly transports passengers between Philadelphia and Easton. When he is not in the apartment arguing with Mildred about one thing or another, he usually goes to Lundy's Place where he drinks with his friends Shealy, Spann and Pauline, down-and-outers all, though Shealy works for ship chandlery near Dock Street.

A door-to-door salesman named Haney Kenrick also hangs out at Lundy's Place. He claims he loves the bar "and all the dear, fine friends he had there. The dear, fine friends all knew it was a lie. Kenrick was not accepted in most circles, and coming to Lundy's gave him a feeling of ego-satisfaction and superiority. He was never quite able to hide his disdain and contempt, and when he offered them a big hello and a pat on the back they just sat there and tolerated him and silently asked him who did he think he was fooling?" Kenrick makes more money than any of Lundy's regular patrons. He is very interested in Mildred, and the interest seems mutual. It's not because he is an attractive man. He isn't. "The factor that made Kenrick a special candidate was the cash in his pockets."

One night Cassidy meets a young woman named Doris at Lundy's. She's a self-proclaimed drunk—he quickly realizes she is an alcoholic—but there's a quality about her that draws him to her, a kind of purity and sweet innocence which, along with her slender fragility, is in stark contrast to Mildred's fleshy brassiness.

The ways in which these characters mesh or clash, and a disaster which echoes the disaster that brought Cassidy down in the first place and puts him on the run again, make up this brief, swiftly-paced  episodic novel that ends abruptly but rightly on a note that's ironic and despairing but which contains an oblique hope for redemption.

David Goodis is probably best remembered for Dark Passage, which was the basis for the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and an acknowledged master of noir fiction. Because Cassidy's Girl is so brief, I've been deliberately vague about story details lest I spoil the experience of it for readers. It contains some crime but really isn't a crime novel. It has several scenes of violent action, but it's not an action novel in the conventional sense of that term. If a label is necessary, call it a slice-of-life character study.

Geoffrey O'Brien aptly called Goodis "the poet of the losers." His prose style is, for the most part, plain and straightforward, but marked now and then with a fillip of evocative imagery or a turn of phrase that, however intriguing it might be, is not so obtrusive as to pull the reader out of the story—e.g., "The emptiness of the closet was like a face grinning at him." A view from the bus of the Delaware River outside of the city "was like a noble contradiction against everything negative and rotten and sordid." And "Something else crept into his mind but before it took shape he gave it a shove and forced it away. It stood on a little invisible shelf, looking down at him...."

Cassidy's Girl, which sold over a million copies in its heyday, is the fourth David Goodis novel I've read over the years, and one I recommend. His work is moody, brooding, and atmospheric, concerned with lost, desperate people pushed to the edge by circumstance or fate. I'm not sure most readers could devour one of his books after another without a break. I definitely couldn't. But it's nice to know there are quite a few more Goodis titles for me to read eventually.

Kindle and Nook users should note that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have been offering e-reader editions of the book for ninety-nine cents, a very affordable way to discover an author new to you or, if you're already familiar with him, to read again.

Barry Ergang (c) 2011
Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award for the best flash fiction story of 2006, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, and fiction available for e-readers, see Barry’s webpages. Remember, too, that he has books from his personal collection for sale at He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists.


George said...

You can't go wrong with David Goodis. He's about as noir as they come.

Laura Elvebak said...

Great review, Barry. I appreciate noir and have written noir. I saw a video of David Goodis at Noir Con in Philadelphia. Great writer. I downloaded Cassidy's Girl.