Professional Man by David Goodis from Best American Noir of the Century – review

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Brian Evenson

When we first meet Freddy Lamb we think of him as little more than an elevator operator with a voice that is “soothing and cool-sweet, almost like a caress for the women and a pat on the shoulder for the men.” People are fond of him, he “looked at you as though he liked and trusted you, no matter who you were.” He seems little more than the ideal elevator man, someone more likely to be a minor foil in a noir than its central character. Or, at most, the kind of guy to accidentally get involved in something big, and before he knows it be in over his head.

And yet, by the second page, he’s already started to shift, donning a new set of clothes–one that seems wildly beyond an elevator operator’s means–and, at the same time, revealing a new personality. We find that he’s obsessed with time, with things happening at exactly the right, precise moment. Goodis, gives us little bits and pieces without revealing too much; making us wonder first if he’s simply someone living beyond his means and then, when he starts to case a clip joint, that he’s a thief. A few paragraphs later, it seems he might be a serial killer as we watch him slit a man’s throat. Only a page or two after that do we find who he is, and what’s really going on, and see how cold and collected he can be, how difficult to read. And then, when we meet his girl and his boss, the trouble really starts.

By that time, it’s already too late for Freddy. In fact, it’s been too late from Freddy from the very beginning–he’s been trapped since long before the story began. And soon he’s given two impossible orders, both of which he feels compelled to obey, despite a queasiness he’s not used to experiencing: first, to dump his girlfriend so his boss can take her, and then (when things don’t turn out like the boss plans) to kill her. He doesn’t want to–he’s just realized he has real feelings for her, after all–but he’s a professional man and takes great pride in finishing each and every job.

With a lesser writer than Goodis there might be a last minute redemption or an escape. But Freddy is a lamb being led to the slaughter, and if you know any of Goodis’s other work you’ll know that for him the inevitable inexorably comes to pass. Which allows you to focus on and even enjoy the ride down: Goodis’ careful pursuit of a single evening that destroys everything and which brings us back, at the end, to the elevator, to Freddy’s understanding that it, more than anything, represents the trap that is his life. “Professional Man” is a wonderfully grim story.

***

Brian Evenson is the author of the Edgar nominated The Open Curtain. His other work includes: Altmann’s Tongue, Din of Celestial Birds, Prophets and Brothers, Father of Lies, Contagion and Other Stories, Dark Property: An Affliction, The Brotherhood of Mutilation, The Wavering Knife, Aliens: No Exit as B.K. Evenson, Last Days, Fugue State, Baby Leg: A Novella, Dead Space: Martyr

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