by Terence Faherty
Last year a friend lent me his well-worn copy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. My friend was aghast that I'd never read a book he considered seminal in the crime fiction field. I enjoyed the novel. It was easy to see that it would have been a standout when it was first published in 1971, since so much of it is told in dialogue and that dialogue is almost straight goodfellaese (almost twenty years before Goodfellas). The novel appeared just after the publication of Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), but in tone it's almost the anti-Godfather. The characters (Irish rather than Italian) are lower middle class and most of their crimes are two-bit. Higgins' refusal to romanticize organized crime makes the book ring true. That and the dialogue.
But it seems to me that Higgins' reliance on dialogue is both a strength and weakness of the novel. It gives the book an immediacy that's almost like listening in on a wiretap, but it also makes it hard to root for or identify with any character in the book, including the title character, Eddie Coyle. That mutes the ending a bit--or it did for me. You can argue that a story without a hero was exactly what Higgins was after, but that isn't the issue I want to talk about today. I want to stick with dialogue, with its advantages and limitations for presenting character.
When I write, I depend a lot on dialogue to help me get to know my characters. That is, I get to know them by listening to them speak. This is especially true of minor characters, the ones who weren't given much attention in my outline. I seldom write much physical description of characters or very detailed "stage directions" in an early draft of a scene. I come to see the character and how the character moves or fidgets or doesn't by listening to his or her voice. Then I go back and add the non-dialogue elements. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, these elements are either missing or pared to the bone. And because so many of the characters are speaking in the wise guy voice, it's hard to separate individuals from the pack. I love the wiretap, but I'd like more video surveillance.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle intrigued me so much I decided to rent the movie version from Netflix. It was released in 1973 and starred Robert Mitchum. I enjoyed it even more than the novel. For one thing, the clothes and cars and settings were out of a time capsule from my college years. It was filmed around Boston, probably in '72 or early '73. I arrived at Boston College (George V. Higgins' alma mater) in the fall of 1972. I even once owned a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, like the one driven by one of the lowlifes in the movie. (He gets razzed for it by his crook buddies, understandably.) The movie easily overcame the problem I had with the book: my inability to identify with or develop much sympathy for Coyle. With a world-weary Mitchum in the part , I automatically rooted for him (to no avail). All the actors in the movie provide the same service, giving faces to the voices of the book.
As a closing aside, It's amazing how adult the movies of the 70s were. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there was no gratuitous romance, no showy violence, no soapbox posturing, and no big name star cast in a part he really isn't right for. (Tom Cruise, call your office.) In contrast, 2012's Killing Them Softly, based on another Higgins' novel, Cogan's Trade, was a disappointment. It had a solid central performance by Brad Pitt, but it was marred by the grand opera style violence that's fashionable now. Not to mention some high concept parallels to the 2008 financial meltdown that bowed the legs of Higgins' simple plot. A better film might have sparked a Higgins revival. This one didn't.