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