Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Review : George V. Higgins - The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970)


Order THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE here

"This life's hard, but it's harder if you're stupid."

George V. Higgins is a legend in American Crime Fiction. He received the ultimate cultural honor last fall, when his novel COGAN'S TRADE has been adapted to the silver screen as KILLING THEM SOFTLY, starring Brad Pitt. It wasn't the first time a Higgins novel was made into a movie. His first novel send such a violent tremor through the cultural landscape, it spawned an adaptation about three years later, not unlike fellow Boston boy Dennis Lehane did last decade with MYSTIC RIVER. That novel is titled THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and as of today, it's a revered piece of literature that Elmore Leonard himself called "the best crime novel ever written". That sort of praise always makes me nervous. What if the book falls flat on me? Rest assured. One reading made it easy to understand why THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is a contemporary classic. It's both a terrific novel and somewhat of a literary stunt.

Eddie Coyle has no friends. He's a low-level, middle-aged gunrunner with a sentencing hearing coming up. That makes him a juicy bait for law enforcement and a source of worry for everybody around him. Special Agent Dave Foley aims to milk the most information possible out of Eddie's fear of prison. He couldn't have hit a better guy as Coyle gives him a unique view on Boston's criminal underworld. There is Jackie Brown, a young, up-and-coming guns dealer. There is also Coyle's old partner Jimmy Scalisi and his crew. Foley is out for blood and will not stop until he Eddie is of no use to him anymore. In the meantime, people who do business with the gunrunner are trying to make a living in an increasingly grimmer and more brutal underworld. You know how it is in these circles. You can't let the game pass you by.

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is a novel almost entirely written in dialogue. It's not really a breakthrough idea per se as Denis Diderot did this two hundred years before Higgins, but unlike the french philosopher/novelist, Higgins didn't write THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE just to see what would happen if you leave all the other variable of a novel out. He wanted to stretch the possibilities of dialogue and see how heavy it could carry. Higgins' novel clocks at just over 180 and pages, but it doesn't feel short. Its dialogue could easily carry a 400 pages novel if Higgins had decided to write it the conventional way.

Scalisi came out of the chair quickly and slapped Wanda across the face. "I told you to shut up," he said. "That's what I want you to do. Shut fucking up."

"No," she said. She did not cry. "No, you wouldn't like that. And you better sleep with both eyes open tonight, because maybe I'll decide to hit you with a hammer, you bastard."
  
Obviously, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is structured around a series of a posteriori* discussions. There are three or four chapters that conveys direct action. Reading it, I could see how it directly influenced many contemporary novels, movies and series, notably THE SOPRANOS **. The dialogue goes from good to transcendent. Relying solely on one variable to carry your narrative makes it difficult to keep a consistent level of quality. The characters are ultimately all too chatty for my taste, but considering the level of difficulty of writing in such fashion, Higgins hit the right notes more often than not.

While I wouldn't put THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE in my personal classics library, I understand very well why it is one. On top of pushing the envelope for dialogue in crime fiction, it pioneered in its portrayal of the criminal underworld. There is no upstanding gangster in George V. Higgins' world. There is no affectionate or romantic vision of gangsters. Higgins used bleakness outside of the horror genre and built a cold universe unlike anything that was ever written before. I will go back to THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE as it's a work of tremendous inspiration and audacity. It got vampirized a bit by lesser writers since then, but it happens to the greatest works of fiction. Still, there is a beauty in these characters, in the peculiar angle George V. Higgins observed them, that could never be replicated.

FOUR STARS

*After the fact.

** Except for that whole, I-love-my-job-of-killing-people feel.


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