THE BLONDE ON THE STREET CORNER by David Goodis (1954)
Reviewed by Mike Dennis
“Ralph stood on the corner, leaning against the brick wall of Silver’s candy store, telling himself to go home and get some sleep.”
That’s the opening line of The Blonde On The Street Corner, a 1954 novel written by David Goodis. Of course, Ralph doesn’t go home. Instead, he spots a blonde across the dark street and gawks at her. She eventually calls him over to light her cigarette, which he does.
Now, at this point, one might expect that Ralph would be lured into a tight web spun by this dazzling femme fatale, resulting in his eventual moral destruction, if not death. But Goodis doesn’t write that way. In fact, the blonde is fat, sharp-tongued, and lives in the neighborhood. Ralph knows her, and knows that she’s married. She propositions him right on the corner, but he rejects her. “I don’t mess around with married women,” he tells her. Then he goes home.
Much to the reader’s surprise, this encounter does not trigger the plot of the novel. In fact, it would be right to say that the novel has no plot, in the usual sense. Ralph returns to his impoverished Philadelphia home and spends the rest of the book wallowing in misery with his friends, all of whom are in the same boat as he: in their thirties, usually unemployed, and filled with unrealistic dreams. One of his friends says he is a “songwriter”, but no one has ever recorded any of his songs. Another wants to be a big-league baseball player, but lasted only a week on a class D minor league team. They spend most of their time leaning up against buildings, wearing only thin coats against the bitter Philadelphia winter, and wishing they had more money. They talk a good deal about going to Florida, where they can get jobs as bellmen in a “big-time hotel”, convinced this would jump-start their desperate lives.
The book goes on like this pretty much all the way through, with no moving story line, but it’s Goodis’ prose that keeps you riveted to the page. No one can paint a picture of a hopeless world better than he can. For Goodis, Philadelphia is a desolate place, whose bleak streets offer little in the way of promise. Many of his novels were set there, and they all shared that common trait. Life in that city is, for him and his characters, usually an exercise in futility. These are people who walk around with twenty or thirty cents in their pockets, who cold-call girls out of the phone book asking for dates, and for whom escape to Florida is always right around the corner. The finale provides the mortal body blow to Ralph, stripping him of the last shred of his dignity.
The Blonde On The Street Corner is a potent novel, filled with the passions and despair of its characters.All through this book, you find yourself longing to run into characters whose lives mean something. Then, you realize there aren’t any.