Forty years ago, in 1970, the young George V. Higgins was working as a federal prosecutor in Boston. By then he’d graduated from Boston College, done a creative writing course at Stanford and worked as a newspaperman before going back to school to study law. He’d written a string of unpublished books and his latest, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (Picador: 182 pp., $14 paper), had already been rejected many times. But Alfred A. Knopf decided to take a chance, offering Higgins the not-so-princely sum of $2,000 for the novel. Higgins took all his failed manuscripts and burned them; as Dennis Lehane notes in his introduction to a new edition of Higgins’ breakthrough book, the game of the crime story was about to change forever.
Eddie Coyle is a small-time Boston hood. He tries to be careful and he’s not numb; but he’s not that smart either, and facing a prison sentence on account of a truck he jacked up in New Hampshire, he starts to make deals with the feds. His friends aren’t friends at all, but the thieves Jimmy Scalisi and Artie Valantropo, the gun dealer Jackie Brown, the Treasury agent Dave Foley and the bartender Dillon who moonlights as a hit man. Eddie, a.k.a. “Eddie Fingers,” doesn’t quite know it yet, at the beginning of the story, but really he’s only a bit player in his own tale, and everything’s going to end badly for him. He’s trapped in the jaws of his grimy, wintry Boston world as surely as though he were a character in Kafka’s Prague. Here’s how Eddie Coyle got his nickname:
“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 M C I 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…Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard.’
Eddie Coyle buys a bunch of guns for a gang of Mob-connected bank robbers, and the subsequent heists they commit provide the background action for a novel in which everybody’s talking, everybody’s trying to score or make a deal, everybody’s living on their own limited wits, and nobody really knows what’s going on. The writing follows not just Eddie himself, but a daisy-chain of other characters, jumping into action mid-scene and leaving the reader to pick up on plot points which are never hit full on the head, but lie buried within flawless dialogue exchanges or monologues that tough guys sing as though they were prima-donnas in low-life opera.
The robber Scalisi, for instance, lectures Eddie on sex and tells him about his lady, an airline stewardess. “I used to think, well, any man’s got to pay for it, he might as well cut it off, you know?” he says. “But the old lady’s whining…all the time and then I get this wired up and I think, well, all right, here’s something and there isn’t any talking and stuff, you know. I been with this broad for probably a year and a half. And I know she’s screwing whoever says please and thank you to her on the plane and I don’t care. I mean, what the hell, I’m not perfect. It isn’t as though she come walking into it blind and stupid, you know? But what does she do? She’d mad because I tell the…truth. She don’t wear no pants. That’s obvious. You take a look at her, you know. So where’s the thing, I mean? What harm does it do? The broad’s great in the sack and she lights off real easy. So I say it, and now she’s mad. I don’t know.”
This reads like the transcript of some FBI wiretap; yet, within the submerged structure of the book, Scalisi’s rant will prove decisive, and disastrous, the schemes of all the wise guys being brought crashing down by a leggy stewardess who doesn’t much like that she’s been dissed. Higgins allows himself the riffs about cheese sandwiches, or mayonnaise, or trust, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whatever, because his plot, while casually revealed, is weighed and calibrated like the barrel of a pistol. The fact that he’s writing about crooks is crucial in some ways, incidental in others. The real subjects here are life’s futility and its bleak humor: “The youngest of the derelicts accosted businessmen and women who had been shopping. He worked diligently to keep them in front of him, trying to block their progress so that they would listen to him. It is harder to refuse to give a man a quarter after you have listened to him for a while, and noticed him. Not impossible, but harder.”
“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” posits a universe in which no defendant ever thinks he’s guilty, everybody’s got an excuse and people hide their fears within balloons of hot air talk while they struggle to get by. Betrayal and double-cross are tools like any other, and so what if there are victims along the way? Life is hard. Elmore Leonard learned from this novel, likewise David Mamet and of course Quentin Tarantino, who saw the narrative virtue in marrying violence to comedies of manners.
“The disability of much American literature,” Higgins once said, “is that it’s written by college professors sitting on their big fat rusty-dusties who don’t know anything about law, politics, or any subject in which real people make real livings.” Higgins, who died in 1999, wrote more than 30 novels, and the best of his subsequent work (books such as “Cogan’s Trade,” “The Rat on Fire” or “A City on a Hill”) inhabits the dingy cracks of worlds of enterprise (criminal or otherwise) that we only thought we knew about. Higgins took the tough-guy novel into areas of demented anthropology and re-created a genre.
Rayner is the author of many books, including “The Devil’s Wind” and “A Bright and Guilty Place.” Paperback Writers appears at https://www.latimes.com/books.