Thursday, November 14, 2013

George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Great dialogue masks 
a misanthropic view of cops and robbers

Dexter Joins George Higgins for a Smoke Break
    I picked up The Friends of Eddie Coyle in a 40th Anniversary Picador edition at Shake It Records.  Shake It has a small but stellar book collection – the graphic novel selection is certainly worth checking out – and I hadn’t seen this anywhere else.  With the Whitey Bulger conviction in the
news at the time and Dennis Lehane’s introductory seal of approval as the current dean of American crime fiction, New England chapter, it seemed like a serendipitous choice.

     Higgins – not to be confused with English action adventure author Jack Higgins – was an Assistant Attorney General for Massachusetts and an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and reporter before his first novel was finally published.  That background served him well in this story of the criminal food chain of gun thieves, gun runners, hit men, bank robbers, and the cops trying to bring them down, but having to work snitches to do so.  That’s part of the irony.  There is no ‘honor among thieves’ and the scariest element is that the sociopath character is the most successful.

     Higgins’ dialogue is extraordinary, but it has to be because it makes up at least eighty-five percent of the book.  The New England rhythms coalesce into a virtual stew because of the Irish and Italian characters, some of them from Boston, others not.  These low-lifes (the criminals and their culture smear even the cops) tell stories continually, whether true or delusional, though always self-revealing.  Though each of the major characters speaks idiosyncratically, the reader doesn’t always know which one is talking and what his relationship is to the person to whom he’s speaking.  And yes, it’s pretty much all ‘he’ because there’s only one female, secondary character.  

     Did David Mamet read this book when he was writing his first plays?  I wonder because there’s that same sense of straight, white males covering the void of their existence by talking at one another almost incessantly.  Fortunately, Higgins doesn’t use all of the ellipses, dashes, stage direction pauses and silences that Mamet inherited from Harold Pinter.  It may also bring to mind Michael Simon’s The Wire, though these white characters’ fear of the Black Panthers places it in the late 1960s.

     The greatest difficulty I had with the book is in the elliptical indirection of the plot.  Higgins does not construct it in an indicative manner at all.  Instead, it’s almost subjunctive in structure, if there is such a term in literary criticism, but it’s the only way I can describe this.  So, to own up completely, a pretty short book took me almost two weeks to read because I kept falling asleep over it and had to keep going back to keep the plot active in my mind.

Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle
     What also surprised me is that I knew the title because of the Robert Mitchum 1973 movie.  He played Eddie Coyle, while Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Alex Rocco, and Joe Santos rounded out the cast.  However, Eddie Coyle is one among a collection of characters; he’s not the main attraction so I’d like to see how that was handled.

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