I've been reading William Boyle's novel, “A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself,” and it's been a joy from start to finish. Comic crime is my sweet spot, and when it's done well there's not much I like better.
One of the things I love about Boyle's writing is how quickly he establishes character and motivation through dialogue. Right away in this novel we get an interaction between a pair of main players that will define who they are through the rest of the book: Rena, a mob widow trying to reconnect with her daughter, and Enzio, her horny octogenarian neighbor.
Enzio comes nosing around, Rena's ready to give him the boot. But her
own loneliness gives her some pause, which is all the opportunity Enzio
needs to keep trying, even after Rena points out his notorious
“Past is past, you know? The way I behaved was in direct correlation to Maria forsaking her wifely duties. The marital bed was cold. Ice-cold. And a man gets heated up. Besides, who we kidding over here? I got one foot in the grave. I'm trying to find someone for company. A nice dinner at Vincenzo's. Maybe a movie.” He pauses, looks around. “You gonna offer me anything?”
“What do you want?”
“Coffee? Maybe a cookie.”
“I've got instant coffee and Entenmann's.”
“That's no way to live.”
The dialogue here is funny, but look at what it tells us about Enzio's character. Everything he says in this brief passage is about his own appetites. Appetite for sex, entertainment, companionship, food—for Enzio, satiation in the only thing that really matters. He even imagines this is somehow a good defense for his own infidelities. Because he's so consumed by these appetites, he imagines everyone else must be too.
is not, however, so she isn't impressed with anything Enzio's
saying. He tries to tempt her with a neighbor's homemade wine, but
even that doesn't work. He's baffled.
“You're a tough nut,” he says. “You don't want any companionship? I'm just trying to be a nice guy here.”
“Okay, okay,” Rena says.
“Okay? What's okay got to do with it? I'm lonely. You're not lonely? We could be lonely together. Watch a movie. Drink some wine. Eat some cookies.”
“Enough with the wine and cookies.”
“A goddamn tough nut.” He sits down across from her. “You want me to leave?”
“I don't care what you do.”
“I'm not leaving unless you come with me, how's that?” He laces his fingers together and cracks his knuckles. It's loud, a tiny thundering, like stepping on Bubble Wrap. “Maybe I'll tell you a story? That's what I'll do.”
The story Enzio tells is about a guy named Eddie, who narrowly avoids being killed by two Russian mobsters after he laughs just as they're about to execute him. His laughter provokes the Russians' paranoia, and they end up killing each other instead of the fortunate Eddie.
The story is so ridiculous, so stupid, that when it's over Rena's left
standing there, gobsmacked.
“What's the point of that story?” Rena asks.
“Laugh a little, that's what.”
And she does laugh. Russian mobsters shooting each other like that. Jesus, Mary, and Saint Joseph. What a tale.
“There you go,” Enzio says. “You've got a nice laugh. All these years, I've never heard you laugh, you know that?”
She's still laughing. Now she can't stop. She's looking across at Enzio, this old man who just told this ridiculous story, and she's noticing his elbows on the table, his flabby chin, hair under his nose and around his ears that he's also missed shaving, earlobes that dangle like melted coins, a little burst of blood vessels on his forehead.
“Okay, okay,” Enzio says.
“I'm sorry,” she says, trying to catch her breath. “I can't stop. I'm gonna pee my pants.”
“Don't piss your pants.”
“Christ, what's so funny?”
She gasps. Tries to settle herself. Her laughter finally sputters to a stop. “Sorry. Just the whole thing.” She waves her hands in front of her as if swatting away gnats. “I'm done, I swear.”
“You're laughing at me?” Enzio says.
“Not at all,” Rena says.
“I'm no fool.”
“I know. I mean, you wanted me to laugh, right?”
“Not like that.”
She gets up. “I need some water. You want some water?”
“I don't like water.”
There's a lot happening in this brief little passage, mostly to Rena. Enzio was an irritation before, but now she recognizes how pathetic he is. After he's told her the story, it literally changes how she sees him. She begins looking more closely, noticing each pitiful detail, all of which make her laugh even harder. Crucially, Rena begins to let down her guard.
Enzio goes through a change here as well. For the first time since his introduction, we see him moved beyond his own appetites. He may not see himself as clearly as Rena does, but her laughter is enough to make him aware that she finds him ridiculous. Suddenly this man of endless appetite won't even accept a glass of water.
one other thing I want to point out in this passage, and it's a nice,
subtle detail. Rena says “pee.” Enzio says “piss.” It's a
small difference of word choice, but its there doing work, reinforcing their characterizations.
Rena goes over to the sink and runs the tap, passing her hand through the stream to make sure it's cold enough. She takes a glass from the dish drain, fills it, and slurps down the water, her back to Enzio. “You're mad?” she asks. She doesn't particularly care if he is—he's just a neighbor to her anyway—but she feels bad for laughing at him. She feels bad he knows she was laughing at him. She wishes [her husband] was still alive for a lot of reasons, but mostly, right now, so she wouldn't have to deal with Enzio.
“I'm fine,” he says, picking at his ear.
She runs more water into her glass and downs it. “I'll come with you to your house,” she says, and she's not even sure why she says it. Maybe she knows it's the only way the tension will die.
“Yeah? Wine and cookies?”
“One glass. Maybe a cookie.”
Enzio claps his hands together. “That's a start.”
Rena places her glass in the sink slowly, hoping if she takes long enough Enzio will go away and she won't have to go with him on this, this … what else to call it but a date?
“You won't be sorry,” Enzio says, grabbing his jacket. “I'm a gentleman.”
“Famous last words,” Rena says.
Here's where the internal change in Rena leads to an external action. Seeing how pathetic Enzio is makes her soften just enough to agree to go to his home. (And, of course, what's the first thing Enzio thinks of when he hears her decision? Those damned cookies and wine.) Even as they're preparing to leave Rena's house, you can sense the power dynamic is shifting again. It's this back and forth that fuels the opening chapter, and ultimately leads to the actions that kick off the novel.
It's a really nice bit of characterization in a novel that's full of examples like this. If you want to learn how to write good dialogue that moves the action forward, Boyle's one hell of a teacher.