The Friends of Eddie Coyle (40th Anniversary Edition) by George V. Higgins

Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle.

Higgins’ message, about crime’s futility and the falseness of its glamour as portrayed by Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola, is an important one, and his book more than succeeds in conveying it.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (40th Anniversary Edition)

Publisher: Picador
Length: 192 pages
Author: George V. Higgins
Price: $14.00
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-05

When The Friends of Eddie Coyle was published in 1972, crime fiction was enjoying something of a renaissance. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather had been published just a few years earlier, captivating readers with its lurid portrayal of a wealthy, powerful Mafia family and their rigidly enforced codes of honor and duty. The rich, Byzantine world that Puzo created and Francis Ford Coppola brought to life in the 1972 film adaptation was overwhelmingly deep, a supposed underworld that lurked in the darkness but pulled all the strings, like the stark hand depicted on the book’s dust jacket.

The Godfather also slyly interwove the pulpy Mafia intrigue with a compelling family (small ‘f’) drama that was easy to relate to. Even if audiences weren’t dodging bullets, they could empathize with the struggle to live up to one’s parents' expectations.

In light of all this, it’s no wonder that George V. Higgins’ short novel (and its 1973 film adaptation) didn’t exactly catch the public’s fancy even though demand for crime fiction was very high. Where The Godfather was glamorous, exciting, and multilayered, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was stark and relentlessly focused. A former prosecutor, Higgins strove for verisimilitude, taking bits and pieces from his own encounters with Boston’s seedy criminal underworld to form the core of his story.

Puzo’s high-minded, manicured Mafiosos are nowhere to be found in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins’ subjects are the low-lives, creeps, and ne’er-do-wells who get their hands dirty and never think to wash up. For these unfortunate souls, crime isn’t a way to get ahead, it’s merely a way to get by, to keep their head above water for a few weeks until the next score can be lined up. It’s a dismal lifestyle that doesn’t lead to mansions and fancy sports cars, but to a life sentence in MCI Walpole or an ignominious execution in a beat up sedan.

Nevertheless, Higgins’ portrayal of the gritty Boston underworld inspired many other writers, like Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane (who provides the introduction to this 40th Anniversary Edition, which I should note is actually two years early) who have carried the author’s respect for truth into their own work and have helped to turn The Friends of Eddie Coyle into a cult classic. The titular Eddie Coyle is described by Lehane as an “antihero”, but even that may be too generous. He’s a thug, caught in a bind.

Caught transporting stolen cargo, he’s facing three years in jail unless he can provide evidence that leads to a bigger arrest. The law knows that Eddie is connected to a galaxy of thieves, murderers, and smugglers, and is willing to deal; Coyle never really hesitates about ratting someone out, though he’d prefer it be a small timer who poses no danger to him. As his sentencing approaches, his desperation pushes him to consider more drastic solutions to his problem, just as it makes his so-called friends anxious about what he may end up doing.

Genre fiction is known for its emphasis on plot, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle takes that focus to its extreme. Higgins’ set pieces are Spartan, driven entirely by dialog. Chapters tend to involve two or three characters talking back and forth, with only minute establishing details, such as what town they’re in and what they’re driving, in between. It’s an effective means of characterization. These are men of action, of interaction, not men of thoughtfulness or contemplation.

The inner thoughts of Coyle and his comrades are never revealed. The author makes no effort to delve deeply into their psyches, perhaps because they have no real inner lives. Though they make their trade in deception, they communicate everything one needs to know through their behavior. Nobody’s fooling anybody, really, and their pretense of camaraderie and politeness is kept up more out of obligation than for any meaningful reason. These men have to act like they aren’t going to stab each other in the back simply to keep business moving, but each one knows there truly is no honor among thieves.

Though Higgins does an excellent job of rendering his characters through their speech and movements, with a knack for local color and the familiar quirks of the Boston working class vernacular, the book’s minimalist style makes it feel almost mechanical at times. It’s unceremonious to a fault; even the book’s climax sneaks up on the reader and passes without much fanfare. While that fits the book’s overarching theme of the banality of crime, it can be difficult for those looking to delve more deeply into the underworld rather than simply admire its scummy surface.

Lehane calls Coyle “tragic”, but again, that’s almost too good for a character that at no point betrays any compunction about his line of work. He doesn’t possess a tragic flaw. He’s simply flawed through and through. Any sympathy he engenders is merely a trick of structure, granted to the protagonist out of habit. The book could easily been titled The Friends of Dillon, with the book’s shady bartender as the protagonist, and the importance and thematic coherence of the story would be just as engrossing.

The book’s closing dialog between a prosecutor and a defense attorney sheds some light on the empty feeling The Friends of Eddie Coyle leaves readers with, the two lawyers acting like a Greek chorus laying down judgment on all that transpired. Higgins’ message, about crime’s futility and the falseness of its glamour as portrayed by Puzo and Coppola, is an important one, and his book more than succeeds in conveying it. The Friends of Eddie Coyle pulls no punches and shatters any Romantic notion you may have about the life of an outlaw.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.