I wrote about the Library of America’s David Goodis omnibus around a year ago. It was a rich and worthy addition to their catalog, but their omission of Cassidy’s Girl was a mild surprise. During its initial release in 1951, it sold a million copies. I was willing to entertain the possibility that it was passed over in favor of five superior books, but just in case I picked up a copy. The only available “in print” version was and is from Black Mask, a print-on-demand outfit.
First impressions, deceptive though they can be, also reveal very quickly whether a familiar author is in good form in an unfamiliar work. By that measure, Cassidy’s Girl is vintage Goodis, sexy, tense and violent. Whatever turmoil surrounded Goodis in life is channeled, if not recreated, in these pages. I won’t dwell on the particular connections a reader might intuit. The brooding quality is there from the opening lines, which find Cassidy piloting a bus through Philadelphia traffic in hard rain. He’s not exactly thrilled with his lot. It doesn’t appear he has much reason to be: “He should have eaten in Easton but some company genius had made an abrupt schedule change and there was no other driver available at the moment. Things like that were always happening to him. It was one of the many enjoyable aspects of driving a bus for a two-by-four outfit.” Much of his dissatisfaction comes from past failings. Cassidy was a golden boy, a standout athlete in high school and at the University of Oregon. He was a pilot in World War II and an airline pilot in the aftermath. A crash, for which Cassidy is unjustly held responsible, leaves him earthbound and relegated to driving a bus.
If anything, his home life is tenser and more demanding. Cassidy’s wife, Mildred, thrives on tormenting him:
Mildred stood at the dresser, leaning toward the mirror as she worked lipstick onto her mouth. She had her back turned to Cassidy and as she saw him in the mirror she leaned lower over the dresser, arching her back and emphasizing her big behind.
Cassidy said, “Turn around.”
She arched her back a little more. “If I do, you won’t see it.”
“I ain’t looking at it.”
“You’re always looking at it.”
“I can’t help that,” Cassidy said. “It’s so damn big I can’t see anything else.”
“Sure it’s big.” Her voice was syrupy and languid as she went on fixing her lips. “It it wasn’t, it wouldn’t interest you.”
They fight, and true to form, Mildred throws a whiskey bottle at him. This sends Cassidy adrift, into the admittedly ambivalent arms of Doris, who is an alcoholic. That’s a full stop – Doris never develops much beyond that, though her openness to cooking for Cassidy is a counterpoint to one of Mildred’s major refusals, as is her basic need of him, though it’s Cassidy who takes the initiative in weaning her off alcohol.
All that said, plot isn’t the best reason to come to David Goodis. The plot here seems to spin out of his control for a time, about midway through, with the needlessly melodramatic addition of another crash on Cassidy’s watch, for which he’s again unjustly accused. The coincidence is easy and unsatisfying, and it’s also the first truly false note in an otherwise tightly controlled book. But Goodis offers ample compensation for that weakness. The pace in Cassidy’s Girl ranges from brisk to frantic. Georges Simenon famously aimed for his books to be readable in a single sitting. Goodis often approaches that mark as well. An obstacle I face in doing so is his absolute mastery of atmosphere. It’s not always night in a David Goodis novel, but it always feels like it. His biographer Philipe Garnier (there’s only a French biography of Goodis at this point), observed that “I find it very hard to imagine springtime in Philadelphia.” There’s the constant temptation to linger with his descriptions of a particular place, to go over them repeatedly and isolate what makes them so evocative. Take, for instance, a scene in which Cassidy approaches a neighborhood bar:
Lundy’s Place had the appearance of something projected through old film onto a cracked screen. It was large and it had a high ceiling and the furnishings had no color, no gloss, no definite shape. The wood of the bar and the tables was splintered and gray with time, and the floor had a mossy texture, like woven dust. Lundy himself was only another furnishing, something old and dull and hollow, moving from bar to table, moving back and forth behind the bar with a face of stone. Most of the regular customers sat at the tables, at the same table and in the same chair night after night after night. And Cassidy, standing outside and peering through the fogged window, knew exactly where to look.
Goodis hits this register often enough that it’s easy to forgive his other transgressions. There’s angst here, certainly in greater portion than one finds in Hammett or Chandler, and it seems to be born of genuine hardship on the writer’s part. The plot, such as it is, resolves into a relatively happy ending. It reads like wish fulfillment, but there’s no evidence Goodis was lucky enough to see such devotion in his own life. In the end, the Library of America’s choice to omit Cassidy’s Girl from its omnibus edition seems entirely defensible; I can easily imagine it as the final cut in a whittling-down process. But it seems unlikely readers would have looked askance at an edition with six novels, especially if one as grim and memorable as this.
– John McIntyre