The Friends of Eddie Coyle — George V. Higgins

There are two distinct ironies in the title of George V. Higgins’s landmark 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The first is the word “friends” to describe the collection of folks on both sides of the law who Coyle tries to get over on in order to get out of an upcoming prison sentence (of course, most of these folks are looking to use or set up Coyle in turn). The second irony is that Eddie Coyle (aka Eddie Fingers aka “the stocky man”) is not so much the headliner here as he is the catalyst in a sharp and gritty tale of Boston gangsters, gunrunners, student radicals,  cops, state police, and federal agents.

Like David Simon did three decades later in his Baltimore opus The Wire, Higgins throws his audience into the deep end. Coyle features almost no exposition. Instead Higgins, a former U.S. Attorney, forwards his intricate and fast-paced plot using machine-gun dialogue. While many crime writers fall for the lure of hyperbolic argot, Higgins’s dialogue rings very true and very raw. He trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone; the rest of the prose is reserved for tight, cinematic descriptions of gritty urban Boston at the end of the 1960s. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way. Coyle features a description of a bank robbery that is so clean, precise, and sharp that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone somewhere had used it as a how-to manual.

Higgins also spares authorial intrusion when it comes to a moral voice in his novel. There are certainly bad guys here, to be sure, but they are complex and human, just like the cops and feds who hunt them. In this sense, Coyle is the prototype of a type of crime fiction that came to rise in the cinema of the ’70s–gritty actioners that viewed crime and punishment through a lens of absolute ambiguity. At the same time, Coyle doesn’t unravel into a mere shaggy dog story–there’s a definite conclusion to the story here, even if it doesn’t satisfy the district attorney who tries to make sense of it all (like, in a metaphysical sense) at the end.

I’ve read more crime fiction in the past year than I ever have before, inspired perhaps by “The Part About the Crimes” in Bolaño’s 2666 or Jonathan Lethem’s forays into noir. I wrote a little bit about this the other week when I praised Denis Johnson’s noveau-noir exercise Nobody Move for its purity and its “willingness to be what it is” (whatever that means). (The tone of Nobody Move is downright lighthearted next to Coyle. Not that they need to be compared–I enjoyed both very much). What I did not directly address in that post is my own prejudice against genre fiction, a prejudice that inflamed me in my early teens to such a degree that I probably outright disregarded a lot of great writing. But there’s always more great writing out there than one can read in a lifetime, so why dwell on the past? Suffice to say that The Friends of Eddie Coyle should correct any prejudicial notions of the limits of crime fiction. Highly recommended.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle 40th Anniversary Edition with a new introduction by Dennis Lehane is new this month from Picador.

In Brief — New (and Not So New) Noir Novels

Got a great little gang of new noir (or at least noirish) novels from Picador last week. These handsome trade paperbacks are all available April 27, 2010. Full reviews all around forthcoming, but until then–

Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a tight snare drum of a comedy crime novel. Jimmy Luntz, still decked out in his white barbershop chorus tux (don’t ask) gets into trouble with a big gorilla he owns money too. On the run, he meets smoldering bombshell Anita. More trouble ensues. Nobody Move, originally serialized in Playboy, is a dark, funny genre exercise propelled by Johnson’s sharp dialogue and keen eye for detail. Johnson’s restraint and economy demonstrate writerly chops, but its his story and his characters that made me stay up too late reading last night.

I’m kind of embarrassed that I’d never heard of George V. Higgins’s seminal crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the story of a down-on-his luck gunrunner trying to get a break on a three-year sentence. Picador’s new edition celebrates the book’s 40th anniversary. Higgins’s electric dialogue thrusts the reader right into the action, trading narrative clarity for a smoky milieu of backroom deals and gritty alleys. But my phrasing here sounds way too corny and trite. Forgive me, I don’t really know how to write about good crime fiction because I’m so unused to it. I’ll lazily favorably compare The Friends of Eddie Coyle to David Simon’s Baltimore crime epic The Wire.

I’ve been too engrossed with Coyle and Nobody Move the past few days to do more than skim over Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, a novel about grifters and scam artists in the jewelery world, but I did read and very much enjoy its first chapter, where the protagonist pawns his mother’s wedding ring (“the only precious thing she had left”) and yet still manages to keep reader sympathy (mine, at least). Martin worked for years in the fine jewelery business. He also translates Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Zadie Smith says of How to Sell: “It’s a little like Dennis Cooper with a philosophical intelligence, or Raymond Carver without hope. But mostly it’s like itself.” I like that.

If you’re still not in a  noirish mood, I’ll make one more attempt to piqué your interest. In what has to be one of the greatest opening shots in the history of cinema, Orson Welles begins his dark crime thriller Touch of Evil with a continuous tracking shot of a car that . . . hang on, I shouldn’t tell you what happens if you don’t know yet. Just watch the scene. It mines the same border-horror that those other noir-masters Roberto Bolaño and David Lynch also evoke so well.