"Americans love to play with tape recorders," said Mao Tse-tung of Watergate.
Americans--from Lawrence Sanders to Richard Nixon to Andy Warhol--love transcripts of tapes, too. This shows up in a distinctive type of fiction that emerged during the '70s. Call it wiretap fiction: It comes from Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett and it is largely the contemporary creation of George V. Higgins in books like "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." Is it only my imagination, or did Higgins pass much of his time as an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston wearing foam-covered earphones, listening to small-time hoods make small talk? At any rate, Higgins and his imitators are acute in their mimicry of spoken speech, and all too often obtuse in their understanding of how the speakers think and feel.
Bill Griffith, whoever may be hiding behind that pen name, has written a wiretap novel, and a first-rate one at that. Crucial scenes of this book are literally wired, taped by a stoolie with a belt-clip Sony. The transcripts of those conversations are the engines of Griffith's plot. Griffith, like any good wiretap writer, has a keen ear for the American vernacular, but he has something less common in the genre: a heart.
Frankie Coolin, Chicago born and bred, is 49, a tough little runt hustling in "the trades," the fringes of the construction industry. With his battered pickup, cooler of beer and foul mouth, Frankie is every bad boss, nasty landlord or dishonest repairman you've ever known. He owns tenements on the South Side, which he heats with space heaters. At the Bohemian Tavern, he's always left his wallet in the truck when it's his turn to pay for the Old Style beer. He sticks his nephew Joey with the dirty jobs in the ghetto. He can't open up with his wife Rose or his son Mick or his daughter Peggy.
But to himself--and, by the end of "Time for Frankie Coolin," to the reader as well--Frankie's a straight guy who's gotten a couple of bad breaks. He believed in hard work and the unions, and he sweated his way to a plasterer's card just in time for the eclipse of plaster as a building material. Now he does whatever he can, works for himself, and gets nowhere:
"What money did he really have? The house was worth sixty-five grand and he still carried less than a two thousand mortgage. The truck was worthless and so was the car. A T-Bill, a paid-up house. Nothing else. No life insurance, no pension.
"More than the fear in him was the feeling that he had failed, that all the years of hustling, of being the wise guy, of keeping the balancing act up in the air had amounted to nothing."
But the worst break Frankie ever got came the day he got mixed up with his wife's cousin, Pat Kennedy, a very small-time hustler on the fringes of the Chicago mob. Kennedy got Frankie to rent a little warehouse space for him, and when the landlord torched the building without warning the clientele, there were a lot of hot Sonys in Frankie's section, left over from a downstate truck hijacking. Now Frankie is getting visits from "the G"--two smooth and menacing FBI men. Frankie goes to Kennedy for help and all he gets is an offer of discount cheddar cheese. Frankie Coolin is being set up to take a fall.
For the next three months, things go from bad to worse. One of the tenements burns. The Rev. Willie Oboe, Frankie's hustling super, begins hinting that the community wants to get Coolin out of the picture to make way for low-cost condos. Rose has anemia--or maybe it's cancer. And Klein, his high-priced lawyer, charges five grand and, in return, spouts oracular '70s patois:
"I am a winner, Mr. Coolin, no matter what the rules of the game and when that day comes, when it comes, you will be my client. This is not guile on my part, Mr. Coolin. If it comes down to it, the bottom line is reached, when it comes to the litmus test and the benchmark . . . when we reach that final point, Mr. Kennedy will hang by the balls before you do."
There's a lot in this book. To begin with, as we have come to expect in a wiretap novel, the dialogue crackles, as in this exchange among Coolin, Klein and an assistant U.S. attorney:
" 'Who's the kid?' Coolin asked .
" 'A representative of the government,' Klein answered .
" 'Yeah. He looks like a mailman.'
"The young man did not blush but his face became paler. 'If this is up to me, I'll push him into Marion. Hard case. How'd you like ten in Marion, hard guy?'
"Klein held up his hand. 'Please. This is my client and you are intimidating him.'
" 'No he isn't,' Frankie Coolin said . . . 'If he was intimidating me, I'd be afraid of him.' "
But Frankie Coolin is more than a midwestern Eddie Coyle. He's a real person, breathing on the page. We come to care about him as we would a member of our families whom we liked without trusting. For all his tough exterior, Frankie is a man of deep feelings he can almost never express. Griffith renders with clarity and restraint the half-ashamed love Frankie feels for Rose, and his sense of wonder at finding that his son Mick is a grown-up with ideas of his own. In the end, Frankie triumphs over everybody except Mick, who abandons his father's dream of law school for another generation of hustling in a battered pickup. "Maybe I got the genes," he tells his father. "Maybe I got to be like you."
I turned the pages of this book eagerly, worried and laughed with Frankie. Only one thing bothers me. Who wrote the book? The jacket tells us only that "Bill Griffith is the pseudonym of an award-winning writer who lives--obviously--in Chicago." I wish the author would come out of the cold, instead of hiding like a literary Federal Witness. But that's wiretap fiction for you.