A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle

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Review by Basil Ransome-Davies

Some novels strike such an authentic note in the beginning that they give you the immediate assurance — the eagerness — to read on. You can’t help being hooked by the individual quality of the writing and the distinctive angle of insight. This is Mo Phelan, a retired porn actress stranded in the sticks to care for her senile mother, writing to her closest friend and former performance partner, Lacey “Wolfie” Wolfstein, in the Bronx. Attending church to vary the grim domestic routine, Mo finds it highly unconsoling:

I got worried, thinking I take Communion, the fucking host goes up in flames in my hand and the priest gets one of those crazy, I’m-in-the-presence-of-a-demon faces…. A snooze, that’s all it was. Found myself thinking of that girl-on-girl scene we did in that deconsecrated church in the Valley. I was a nun, you were a Jayne Mansfield knockoff. I’m looking at this stained glass Jesus behind the altar, thinking of that. What a fucking life.

The letter runs through a sequence of memories of shared enjoyment, ephemeral moments invested with lasting emotion, and concludes with a plea for ‘Wolfie’ to visit her. What then takes off is a picaresque tale involving Mo and Wolfstein; Rena Ruggiero, a Mafia widow; her daughter and granddaughter; a priapic eighty-year-old, Enzio, who fetishises his classic Chevrolet Impala and whose technique for seducing the widow is to play a porn video on his supersize tv while popping Viagra; sundry violent gangsters (one as vainglorious as Wile E. Coyote, another a psycho toting a homicidal sledgehammer) and a weepy chauffeur.

It’s a ripe medley of characters from the American demi-monde that stirs comparisons with those of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen and early Tarantino. There’s big money, hot money, at stake, but equally dreams and fantasies impel the ensemble, mixed in with nostalgic mental replays of movie scenes and drifts of songs. They are repeatedly in motion in and around New York like the freewheeling existential pilgrims of a road movie, pursuit or escape their pressing need. Their vehicle makes and models are namechecked as if a litany, ditto firearm specs. They stay in grunge motels and drink in white-trash bars. Vodka is devoured till drinkers vomit or pass out. Dark as it can be, the social vibe is not that of sophisticated urban noir, with its glamorous apartments and night spots, more the moral landscape of Country, the ‘white man’s blues’ and most widely vilified of popular music genres.

So  an assortment of freakish stereotypes, geared up for cheap guignol farce? Not at all. Like Leonard and Hiaasen, but also like pantheon US authors such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner, Boyle can switch without crashing gears between folk comedy and atrocious horror. He does both high and low humour,  his ear for low-life dialogue is finely tuned, but it’s his unshowy control of tone and tempo that seals the deal. He’s not afraid of narrative digression or freely overlapping time schemes, especially when he relays lifestyle-defining memories. He confidently alternates present-tense with simple-past narration for flashbacks (yes, I have a bias against unrelieved present-tense narration in fiction). The book’s ‘structures of feeling’ are shaped by characters revealing, or re-living, their personal histories. Wolfsheim used to be a grifter in Florida, suckering wealthy men into romantic affairs in order to fleece them. When one of her victims, the hapless, dimwitted Bobby, shows up to confront her, he doesn’t want his money back; he wants her to love him, wants her lies to be true. Rena, having lived for decades as a dutiful zombie housewife while turning a routine blind eye to her mobbed-up husband’s business, is cast out of the straight, law-abiding world after she crowns Impala Man with a glass ashtray when he grossly tries to jump her bones. Initially aghast, naïve and confused, shocked at her own action and by the killing of her nearest and dearest, she digests the experience, acclimatises and earns a new role as a front-line grandma. She even learns to drink vodka without throwing up. The waywardness and complexity of human relations are the plot motors, not literary straining for effects (just saying, Carl Hiassen).

Boyle’s people are neither the illiterate fuckups and losers commonly assumed to be the fanbase of Country music nor the stoic Emersonian heroes of national myth. They’re ordinary women trying to make their way in twentieth century America (the time-frame is that of Dubya’s presidency), the walking wounded of a republic dedicated to Enlightenment ideals yet poisoned by ignorance, hypocrisy, hate, injustice and endemic lethal violence. They’re survivors rather than achievers — though for them survival is achievement. Are they deserving? Hard to tell. The aura pervades of an arbitrary fate, of casually distributed luck rather than karmic balance.  Was a wild, two-day criminal odyssey bound to stem from that moment of the crude pass and the punitive ashtray, a twist in time? There’s even a potential off-page payback lying in wait for the female band of outlaws and Dennis the broken-hearted driver as Rena cooks up a storm and they unite in friendship to celebrate mortal existence and its sensual pleasures. Pleasures of the belly and the heart. Beat that.   

The title is from Robert Louis Stevenson, who also wrote that there is ‘nothing like a little judicious levity’. Both quotes hum with the ambivalence so dear to the man who created Jekyll and Hyde. ‘Judicious levity’ is not a bad way of describing William Boyle’s style. He makes you laugh, but you’re never allowed to forget that people hurt and corpses bleed.      

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William Boyle, A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself, (No Exit Press: Harpenden, 2019). 978-0-85730-241-0, 349 pp., paperback.

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