Friday, August 13, 2010

An ear for dialogue distinguish Faithful Place and The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Two hits, two misses.

The misses first:

Book 63: Bicycle Days by John Burnham Schwartz

I have an affinity for the writing of John Burnham Schwartz. It's not simply that I like his writing, but his tone, the subject manner and his approach to it and, finally, his romantic sensibility all appeal to me.

Bicycle Days is Schwartz's second book. The problems inherent with most novelists' second books are present here. Schwartz loses control of his material near the end of the novel and that's disappointing. But to his credit, Schwartz deftly handles most of this story of a stranger in a strange land. It's closely observed. Schwartz gives us a sense of what it is like to live in a foreign land. He also approaches the Japanese with fondness and respect that foster genuine understanding.

I can't say that Bicycle Days is a great book, or even a very good one. If you like Schwartz, I think you will like this one, or parts of it anyway. If you're unfamiliar with Schwartz try Claire Marvel or The Commoner.

Book 65: Work Song by Ivan Doig

Let's get this out of the way. Work Song is a disappointment. I truly admire so much of Doig's work: This House of Sky, Winter Brothers, The Sea Runners, English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, but the magic that filled those books is missing here.

Work Song is set in Butte, Montana just after the end of World War I. It's a rough town. Violent, with conflicts constantly brewing between the owners of the Anaconda Copper Mine, the miners and the Wobblies (the I.W.W.) Yet Doig's tone is all wrong; it's almost light-hearted, blithe in a way that does not ring true with the tenor of the times.

Much of the problem is with Doig's characters. Morrie Morgan, who first appears in The Whistling Season. Morgan is too good to be true. He may have succeeded, marginally, in a one-room schoolhouse in the Marias Coulee, but in Butte, in a novel about a conflict between miners and miners owners, he isn't believable or appealing.

Doig also throws into the mix a pair of good-hearted, retired Welsh miners; a comely, yet good-hearted landlady; a skinny, but speedy waif improbably dubbed the Russian Famine; and a reformed rancher, who once hung rustlers with impunity, but now confines himself to collecting rare books; as well as reviving "Rabrab," one of Morgan's students in The Whistling Season, now grown into a comely, but good-hearted young woman, who is dating the head of the miner's union;

It's an unappetizing, unbelievable jumble by an author who has written so many better books.

Now on to the hits:

Book 66: The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

We're approaching the 40th anniversary of this crime novel written in 1972 by Higgins who was an assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston at the time.

Much of Eddie is dialogue. In his work in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Higgins developed a ear for the way people talk and he was able to vividly capture it on paper.

It's a great novel, and an important one, providing a template for all the writers of crime novels and thrillers and mysteries that followed.

Eddie was made into a film in 1973 starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle.

Book 64: Faithful Place by Tana French

I read this book under the worst possible circumstances. I knocked off the first 200 pages in a couple of days, but then work and travel and vacation meant that it took more than a week to finish the remaining couple of hundred pages. There were days I didn't read it at all, and days where I was lucky to read 10 or 15 pages without interruption. Most novels can't survive that kind of inattention. Faithful Place not only survived my neglect, but established itself as one of the best books I've read this year.

Set in Dublin, the novel is a stew of family regrets and resentments and class warfare. Early in the book a character asks, "What are you willing to die for?", but a better question might be "what are you willing to kill for?" because murder -- two of them -- is at the heart of the lies and anger and violence that animate this story.

French is a powerful writer, who, like Higgins, has an ear for dialogue. Her characters are finely drawn and one cannot help but hope that she will write again about her central character, Frank Mackey, a Dublin cop, who hasn't seen his family in more than two decades.

Mackey is reluctantly drawn back into contact with his family and his old neighborhood when a suitcase that surfaces in an abandoned building leads to the discovery of a body. The mystery that Mackey sets out to unravel is sufficient to carry a book, but French has raised the bar by also weaving a compelling narrative of Mackey's efforts to delicately weave his two lives into one.

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