In 1976, Bob Bonfield sat in front of me in our office at the Alabama Revenue Department. I wasn’t sure I liked him at first. He seldom smiled, and his tweedy jackets were usually pocked with a burn hole or two from the Dunhill pipe he kept clenched between his teeth. But during the time I worked with him, he taught me the nuances of a dry sense of humor and introduced me to the tangy flavor of Bob Sykes BarBQ and the aromatic magic of Jim Mate pipe tobacco. The only thing that annoyed me about him was his habit of trying to lure me into a literary discussion. I was especially wary of lit’ pushers because I had spent my post college years trying to concentrate my reading time on more practical pursuits such as tax law and accounting. So whenever Bob asked if I had read this or that novel, I would snap, “I don’t read..fiction” with the same derision Count Dracula conveyed when he declared, “I never drink…wine.”
One day in my office, I looked up to see him approaching me like a cat stalking a chipmunk. When he was standing across from me, he dropped a thin slip of a book on my desk and said, “Take this home with you and read the first page. If you can stop there, just bring it back, and I’ll never ask you about books again.”
I was tempted to tell him to take that vile and unproductive thing off my desk. But what was I afraid of? The scrawny little book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, looked about as intimidating as a Brussels sprout. It was barely as thick as my thumb, and when I flicked through it, I noticed that there was almost as much margin on its pages than text. No, I thought, this would be easy. I would read the first page at a glance tonight and rid myself once and for all of Bonfield’s attempted intrusions into my reading life.
But that night, my plans to stop after the first skimpy page was thwarted when I became embroiled in a criminal conspiracy to supply guns to a gang of mob-connected Boston bank robbers. I went deep into my sleep time, hanging out with Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time Boston hood, as he purchased guns for the robbers, then attempted to turn the gun dealer over to a Treasury agent in exchange for lenient sentencing in Coyle’s hijacking conviction. I listened in as Coyle’s friend and bartender, Dillon, tried to find out about Coyle’s relationship with Jimmy Scalisi, aka Jimmy Scal’, the gang leader. I was privy to Dillon’s attempt to ingratiate himself with the Treasury Department by telling them that Scalisi and Coyle had something going on. I rode blindfolded in the floorboard of a car with a kidnapped bank manager, surrounded by Scalisi and his cohorts, then hung out with Treasury Agents, Foley and Waters, as they tried to figure out what Coyle was up to. Before I knew it, I had witnessed Coyle being murdered by his friend, Dillon, in execution of a mob contract.
Early in the morning, I dropped the book on my night table, wondering what it was about The Friends of Eddie Coyle that had robbed me of sleep and held me captive from beginning to end. I searched through the cast of characters and found none of them sympathetic, not a single one that I could identify with and care about. The narrative was certainly not compelling, in fact there was so little of it, it was more like stage direction in a play. No, it was the dialogue—dialogue that moved the action along at breakneck speed, and made me feel as though I were eavesdropping on a world of desperate, low-life criminals.
This dialogue was successful because it was authentic and eminently readable. There was the occasional phonetic spelling, such as using Broons for Bruins. But for the most part, the regional flavor (south Boston) was accomplished by sentence structure. On page four, Eddie tells the gun dealer, Jackie Brown, why he’s so careful about the guns he buys and why having Jackie’s name is not enough to make him feel safe in the transaction: “I bought some stuff from a man that I had his name, and it got traced, and the man I bought it for, he went to MCI-Walpole for fifteen to twenty-five. Still in there, but he had some friends. I got an extra set of knuckles. Shut my hand in a drawer. Then one of them stomped the drawer shut. Hurt like a fucking bastard.”
Another authentic characteristic of the dialogue was that it wasn’t always linear. Often, a character would drift briefly from the subject as people will sometimes do. An example of this is also on page four. Eddie is further describing to Jackie Brown how the gangsters were ordering him to hold out his hand so they could break his fingers when he suddenly shifts from the direct story of the incident to an anecdote about his childhood: “‘Now get your hand out there.’ You think about not doing it, you know? I was in Sunday School when I was a kid and this nun says to me, ‘stick out your hand,’ and the first few times I do it she whacks me across the knuckles with a steel-edged ruler. It was just like that. So one day I says, when she tells me, ‘Put out your hand,’ I say ‘No.’ And she whaps me right across the face with that ruler. Same thing. Except these guys aren’t mad…”
I was hooked on fiction again. I wanted very much to be a George V. Higgins fan, but I had to satisfy my habit elsewhere. In his subsequent novels, Higgins came to rely on dialogue so much that most of the action in the scenes occurred in the past or otherwise away from the scene while characters rattled on and on in dialogue that resembled battling soliloquies. The clever little oblique divergences that were so effective in The Friends of Eddie Coyle had become marathon ramblings, a novel in linked shaggy dog stories. After a page or two, I could no longer tell which of Higgins’ characters was talking or even what the subject was.
Years later, I was shuffling through the bargain bins of Books-a-Million when I came across a Higgins novel titled, At End of Day. Bonfield, who had reintroduced me to fiction, had died a few years earlier, and his memory drifted pleasantly through my mind as I picked up the book and ran my fingers across its slick cover. I was saddened when I read on the inside of the book jacket that Higgins had died.
I was moved to buy Higgins’ last novel for the bargain price of $5.99, and I hurried home with it, hoping that I would love it as I had his first. The book began in fine Higgins fashion with the characters becoming interesting simply by what they said and how they said it. But in Chapters 4 and 5 the dialogue that had been the driving force of the pacing in Higgins’ first novel brought the story in his last one down to a slow crawl. The two chapters consisted entirely of two veteran detectives telling each other things both of them obviously already knew. The dialogue included background that the reader needed, but it could have been handled naturally and more effectively in narrative.
I donated Higgins’ final novel to the library, but I ordered a copy of his first from Amazon. When the book came in, I read it again with more admiration than I had the first time. Now in my house, The Friends of Eddie Coyle sits proudly among the works of Graham Green, Ernest Hemmingway, Flannery O’Connor, Stanley Elkin, Richard Yates, Francine Prose and James Baldwin. If Bonfield were still around, I’m sure he would be pleased to know what an influence he had on my writing as well as my reading. And Higgins would certainly be proud of the company his shady protagonist, Eddie Coyle, now keeps on my bookshelf.