Carlo Rotella

The arias of ‘Eddie Coyle’

Higgins’s novel is like an opera built from snatches of folk melodies, rich in its ability to explore the inner lives of a certain class of men

By Carlo Rotella
May 3, 2010

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IT’S BEEN four decades since George V. Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle’’ was first published. The Boston it depicts — a gray backwater dump roamed by regular-guy dinosaurs perplexed by hippies, black radicals, women’s lib, and their own obsolescence — feels closer to Depression-era America than to our own time. When Coyle, a low-end gangster, hits the number, the wildest extravagance he can imagine is to buy the missus “a color tee-vee,’’ but he decides otherwise after she starts in on him about the smoky oil burner.

In his introduction to the recently published 40th anniversary edition, Dennis Lehane calls “Eddie Coyle’’ “the game-changing crime novel of the last 50 years’’ and says it casts a long shadow over Boston novels in any genre. Higgins not only showed successors from Elmore Leonard to George Pelecanos how to tell a crime story with dialogue and a minimum of understated description, he nailed a particular Boston — the cluster of villages dominated by descendants of the Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants who poured into the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the 1970s and after, a new phase of the metropolis began to succeed Coyle’s city. As it matured, that newer Boston — catering to service and high-tech industries, heavily gentrified, surrounded by sprawling suburbia — provided a natural habitat for very different crime stories and characters. Chief among them were Robert B. Parker’s fantasies about Spenser, his literate, fitness-obsessed, brunch-preparing, feelings-discussing, race/class/gender-analyzing detective hero.

The standard thing to say about “Eddie Coyle,’’ especially the dialogue, is that it’s unimpeachably authentic. The crutch-word “gritty’’ shows up a lot when it’s being praised. Higgins’s experience as an assistant attorney general and assistant US attorney is frequently cited, the idea being that he used raw chunks of lived experience he had collected at his day job to save American crime fiction from over-stylization at the hands of imitators of Raymond Chandler.

That’s not wrong, but it sells short Higgins’s novel by reducing it to a mere transcription of real life. Similarly, the novel is often sold short as a mere excuse for the movie based on it. The movie’s good mostly because the filmmakers tried so hard to do justice to the book. It is near-perfectly cast, stylishly shot, lovingly attentive to the tone and pace of its characters’ lives, and shrewd in borrowing almost all its dialogue from the novel. (And don’t start complaining that they got the accents wrong. Accurate accents, if it’s even possible to achieve them in a way that would satisfy this city full of fanatical accent-inspectors, aren’t everything. The movie’s word-music, like its gluey diner food, is pitch-perfect.)

But forget about the movie. The adaptation I’d like to see, one that might do better justice to the book, is an opera. The pleasure of Higgins’s dialogue is in listening to characters with limited means and narrow horizons go long in riffing on their lives, as if they were so many Don Giovannis from Quincy or Watertown. (Coyle grew up around Central Square in Cambridge. I told you, it was a long time ago.) The novel’s like an opera built from snatches of folk melodies, just as stylized as anything by Chandler but infinitely richer in its ability to explore the inner lives of a certain class of men (and a couple of put-upon women) in a certain time and place.

Imagine the novel as a series of arias: “I Can Get You, Probably, Six Pieces’’; “One of the First Things I Learn Is Not to Ask a Man Why He’s In a Hurry’’; “I Probably Work More’n Both of You Bastards Put Together’’; “Forget about the Color Tee-Vee’’; “Three Rich Uncles, and All of Them Died This Month or So’’; “Jesus, I Forgot How Bad a Thing a Cheese Sandwich Is to Eat’’; “You’ll Be Out When Gansett Opens in the Fall’’; “Number Four, Bobby Orr’’; “New Guys Come Along, Old Guys Disappear.’’

And at the end, when one of Coyle’s double-dealing friends gets him drunk at a Bruins game and takes him for a one-way ride, the orchestra builds to a flourish as the curtain comes down on a tale of a lost city told with lasting power and beauty.

Carlo Rotella, a guest columnist, is director of American Studies at Boston College.

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