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Of Tender Sin by David Goodis

Of Tender Sin
David Goodis

Of Tender Sin
David Goodis
Serpent’s Tail
London 2001
$12.00 1852426748

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Its title might be one of the worst in the history of pulp fiction (which is saying a lot) and, given that it has been out of print for nearly fifty years, it wouldn’t be surprising if Of Tender Sin lived down to its name. That said, the book is surprisingly good. Although it doesn’t achieve the greatness of Goodis’s best book, Shoot the Piano Player, it is still one of his better books and is an excellent example of existential post World War Two noir fiction.

The plot concerns the relationship between Alvin Darby and his wife Vivian. Darby is a true everyman who probably has the dullest job in the world, as an assistant to an actuary, and his drab routine of a life provides fertile ground for his paranoia and jealousy. Convinced that his wife is having an affair, Darby embarks on a nocturnal search for her lover, intent on killing him. Along the way, Darby develops an obsession for the meaning of his memory of a blond-haired woman. The theme of the elusive blonde is reminiscent of other Goodis novels, most notably The Blonde on the Street Corner. Other familiar Goodis images and themes appear throughout the novel–the frigid snowy Philadelphia backdrop, the loner searching for meaning in his life, the dark, bleak, hopeless streets–but the book has its unique qualities as well. Considering that the book was written in the early 1950s its frank depiction of drugs and sexuality is startling. Several of the scenes almost seem contemporary in style, which might explain why the book didn’t receive very much attention when it was first published.

The novel does have its flaws. The first half is much better that the second and, as Darby searches for the meaning of the memory of the blond-haired woman, the narrative occasionally descends into overly simplistic–dime store psychology. But the book has more plot than most Goodis novels and is never dull. The title may still be bad, but it’s highly worthy of its new shelf life.

Reviewed by Jason Starr


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