I'm coming to understand how prone these biweekly top 10s are to elephantiasis (in the Manny Farber sense), especially when I tack on the word "best" to the list. I'm not sure I've ever used that word (which we used at Amazon with a frequency perhaps approaching uselessness) without at least an inner wink at its preposterousness: critical "best" lists are always idiosyncratic and individual and aspirational, based on both particular tastes and a necessarily limited view of the territory.
It would be particularly absurd to claim the word for this fortnight's list. The ten "books with the best dialogue" or something like that? An impossible task, and I'm not even going to try. The title of the list is clunky in its modesty, but it at least promises no more than I'm up to: just ten books that have good talking in them. ("Dialogue" is such a clinical word.) I'm sure I could have chosen ten more where the talking's just as good (and maybe I'll do a whole series of such lists), but here is where I'll begin. (Side note: some of the most memorable quotes I know from books, e.g. Double Indemnity, True Grit, All the President's Men, are memorable in part because of the movies they were used in later. I'm going to steer clear of those here: that will definitely be a Firmament of its own at some point.)
By the way, this post may not be elephantine in its claims, but it will be in its size, 'cause I'm going to be quoting generously from the quotations. Deep breath, and here goes:
1. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins. My favorite book I read last year--what a revelation--and it's all built on talk. (And what a blurb from Elmore Leonard: "The best crime novel ever written--makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew." Yup--cover blurbs, yet another future Firmament. And speaking of Leonard, do you think Tarantino had one of the characters below in mind when he changed the heroine's name from Jackie Burke when he adapted Rum Punch into Jackie Brown?) This passage comes from the first scene in the book. It's seven pages of almost straight dialogue, and I could have chosen any bit of it to quote, but I like this:
"I got guns to sell," Jackie Brown said. "I done a lot of business and I had very few complaints. I can get you four-inchers and two-inchers. You just tell me what you want. i can deliver it."
"How much?" the stocky man said.
"Depends on the lot," Jackie Brown said.
"Depends on what I'm willing to pay, too," the stocky man said. "How much?"
"Eighty," Jackie Brown said.
"Eighty?" the stocky man said. "You ever sell guns before? Eighty is way too high. I'm talking about thirty guns here now. I can go into a goddamned store and buy thirty guns for eighty apiece. We got to talk some more about price, I can see that."
"I'd like to see you go into a store and order up thirty pieces," Jackie Brown said. "I don't know who you are and I don't know what you got in mind and I don't need to know. But I would sure like to be there when you tell the man you got some friends in the market for thirty pieces and you want a discount. I would like to see that. The FBI'd be onto your phone before you got the money out."
"There's more'n one gun store, you know," the stock man said.
"Not for you there ain't," Jackie Brown said. "I can tell you right now there isn't anybody for a hundred miles that can put up the goods like I can, and you know it. So no more of that shit."
2. Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, edited by Stanley I. Kutler. Speaking of conspirators... When you think of good dialogue in books, you likely think of fiction, but Nixon's Oval Office taping system (and LBJ's before it) was a great gift not only to justice but to lovers of the American vernacular as well. Kutler's edited selection is full of choice material, but I've chosen a sample that's a little atypical. One of the pleasures of the transcripts is how direct Nixon and his men were--there are enough smoking guns there for a John Woo movie--but in this melancholy exchange with his loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods on March 21, 1973, he's more elliptical, perhaps because she's a lady, perhaps because they've been working together so long they don't need to say more, perhaps because he's ashamed to be dragging her through this muck (scrounging cash to pay off possible blackmailers like Howard Hunt).
President Nixon: Let me ask you something I was checking. We at the present time may have a need for substantial cash for a personal purpose for some things that are outside the political (unintelligible), and so on. Approximately how much do you have at this point in the event (unintelligible)? It would be reimbursed at a later time, but this is something that, I don't know if we wanted it or not, but I got to find out.
Woods: I know--I deliberately don't remember the thing, but I know I still have that hundred [thousand?], if I'm right. It's not the kind of thing you remember--I'm so worried.
President Nixon: Do you have (unintelligible)?
Woods: They called earlier and I said it had been used for a special project, so that there'd be no record.
President Nixon: And you have some other as well?
Woods: Yes. I don't know. I would have to look. I'd have to get in the safe. I don't remember.
President Nixon: But it's a sum you can take. We may have to call on that, and I don't know--. Incidentally, let me ask you, is that in--in what kind of--
Woods: That's why I've been wanting to (unintelligible) recommend that either you or Pat [Nixon]. I think you gave me about a couple of years, whether to use the thing or not.
President Nixon: Well, I see that that would have to be transferred to something else in order to get it out. Okay.... Now, how much (unintelligible), maybe somebody who would know, not here, but we have to use it for certain purposes, and we'll get it.
Woods: Nobody here knows I have it, because I don't--
President Nixon: Well, I know, and nobody anyplace else knows. Just we have a campaign thing that we're talking about.
3. The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Criminals do make for good conversation. This superbly enjoyable book (full of smoking guns too) does not have a great deal of directly witnessed dialogue, but perhaps the best page in the whole book does, based on McLean's initial interviews with Enron executives while reporting for Fortune. After a phone conversation between McLean and Enron's new CEO, Jeff Skilling, in which Skilling grew "increasingly agitated" in a "stream-of-consciousness rant" before finally hanging up the phone, Enron's head of PR hastily arranged a meeting in Fortune's offices with the company's CFO, Andy Fastow (who ends up as the clearest villain in the book, despite--or perhaps because of--his final request below):
Fastow's explanation of Enron's business did not exactly provide the promised clarity. On the contrary. Here's how Fastow explained Enron's business model: "We create optionality. Enron is so much more valuable--hence our stock price--because we have so much more optionality embedded in our network than anyone else." Fastow then compared Enron to Toyota; Enron, too, was an "assembler" rather than a "manufacturer." "Our disclosure is more complete than anyone's," Fastow insisted. A moment later, he seemed to say precisely the opposite: "We don't want to tell anyone where we're making money." Like Skilling, Fastow insisted that Enron did not make its money speculating. "It's not trading, it's optimization," he said. The proof? Enron's earnings record in the wholesale business. "We have for 20 straight quarters exceeded the previous one. There's not a trading company in the world that has that kind of consistency."
When McLean asked Fastow about the related-party transactions, he replied. "One of our senior executives runs that fund. It's confidential who it is." (In fact, a line in Enron's 1999 proxy statement disclosed that the senior executive was Fastow.) Why did Enron need to do business with the related party? "We're always looking to hedge risks, to sell risks," Fastow replied. "We want to sell, but we don't want the information to get into the market ... it adds to our optionality." And "we strip out the price risk, we strip out the interest-rate risk, we strip out all the risks. What's left may not be something that we want. We want the contract, but we don't want the power plant. We're not investing for the whole thing--we wanted the optionality. Once we've gotten that piece, we want to sell off the other pieces."
After two hours, the meeting came to a close. Koenig and Palmer left the room; Fastow lingered for a moment. After he gathered up his things, he paused. "I don't care what you say about the company," he said finally. "Just don't make me look bad."
4. The Ask, Sam Lipsyte. Hapless Milo is perhaps at his least hapless in this exchange after he and Denise, a pantsuited mom, have arrived at the Happy Salamander, their Queens preschool, to find a handwritten sign on the closed door: "Closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts. Sincerely, The Blue Newt Faction." We pick things up late in a doorway conversation with Carl, who may or may not be a Blue Newter, in a scene I've probably read out loud to half a dozen listeners.
"Going back to grad school?" I said. "Didn't you get your degree already?"
"There are many versions of that story, my friend."
Carl shook, his beard wet with spit. He wiped it with the sleeve of his stained French sailor shirt.
"Can we talk to Maddie?" I said.
"Yes," he said. "Maybe it's better if you talk to Maddie."
He disappeared into the house and in a moment Maddie poked her head out.
"Sorry about that. Carl's taking this hard."
"So are we," I said.
"The Blue Newt Faction is talking about starting again. Maybe upstate. If you're interested. The others, I don't know what they will be doing. But we would be delighted to take Bernie back if we get something together at some point. Aiden, too."
"Would you board them? With the milk cows?"
"We live here, Maddie," I said. "This school is near our houses. Are you suggesting we all move to a little town upstate? Will there be a cheese collective we can all work at?"
"Jesus, Maddie. We were depending on you guys. We didn't realize it was just an intense hobby."
"I resent that, Bernie's Dad."
"I'm just being honest, Bernie's immature, self-involved, pseudo-intellectual preschool teacher."
"I'm closing the door now," said Maddie. "For Bernie and Aiden's sake."
"Close away," I said. "Tourist. Honky."
"We're all white in this conversation," said Maddie.
"This might be your year abroad, lady," said Denise, "but we live here."
"I really am closing the door," said Maddie, and did.
"Come on," said Denise. "There's a Montessori on Ditman. Maybe they've got some openings."
5. This Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff. There's a long-standing debate about the reliability of direct quotations in memoirs, but this exchange seems like one that might sear itself in your memory for life. The situation: young Jack (as Wolff was called at the time) is being driven from Seattle to a town in the Cascades, fishtailing through the mountain switchbacks, by Dwight, his mother's boyfriend, with whom he's going to live as a sort of audition to become his stepson. It doesn't begin well.
I said I was a little sick to my stomach.
"Sick to your stomach? A hotshot like you?"
The headlights slid off the road into darkness, then back again. "I'm not a hotshot," I said.
"That's what I hear. I hear you're a real hotshot. Come and go, where you please, when you please. Isn't that right?"
I shook my head.
"That's what I hear," he said. "Regular man about town. Performer, too. That right? You a performer?"
"That's a goddamned lie." Dwight kept looking back and forth between me and the road.
"Dwight, please slow down," I said.
"If there's one thing I can't stomach," Dwight said, "it's a liar."
I pushed myself against the seat. "I'm not a liar."
"Sure you are. You or Marian. Is Marian a liar?"
I didn't answer.
"She says you're quite the little performer. Is that a lie? You tell me that's a lie and we'll drive back to Seattle so that you can call her a liar to her face. You want me to do that?"
I said no, I didn't.
"Then you must be the one that's a liar. Right?"
"Marian says you're quite the little performer. Is that true?"
"I guess," I said.
"You guess. You guess. Well, let's see your act. Go on. Let's see your act." When I didn't do anything, he said, "I'm waiting."
"Sure you can."
"Sure you can. Do me. I hear you do me."
I shook my head.
"Do me, I hear you're good at doing me. Do me with the lighter. Here. Do me with the lighter." He held out the Zippo in its velvet case. "Go on."
I sat where I was, both hands on the dashboard. We were all over the road.
I didn't move.
He put the lighter back in its pocket. "Hotshot," he said. "You pull that hotshot stuff around me and I'll snatch you bald-headed, you understand?"
"You're in for a change, mister. You got that? You're in for a whole nother ball game."
I braced myself for the next curve.
6. The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville. I think if I had to go back into academia and spend the rest of my career getting to the bottom of a single book, it might well be The Confidence-Man, although I'm afraid, as far as bottoms go, that it's turtles all the way down. Melville's lesser-known shipboard story, set on a steamboat down the Mississippi, is an endless house of mirrors, but the way it brings the most anxious issues of the age, from slavery to sincerity, right to the surface, while making you unsure of what's under that surface, is bewildering and thrilling, and it feels like it might be the truest representation of the American madness there is (see Jim Lewis's great appreciation of this "unmasterful masterpiece"). What I love about the dialogue is how unabashed Melville is about conforming the vernacular to his most theoretical of concerns--needless to say, an almost impossible feat to pull off, and one that Melville obsessively pushes as far as he can. Here's a prime example, following the performance onboard of a "grotesque negro cripple" calling himself "Black Guinea":
"Tell me, sir, do you really think that a white could look the negro so? For one, I should call it pretty good acting."
"Not much better than any other man acts."
"How? Does all the world act? Am I, for instance, an actor? Is my reverend friend here, too, a performer?
"Yes, don't you both perform acts? To do, is to act; so all doers are actors."
"You trifle.--I ask again, if a white, how could he look the negro so?"
"Never saw the negro-minstrels, I suppose?"
"Yes, but they are apt to overdo the ebony; exemplifying the old saying, not more just than charitable, that 'the devil is never so black as he is painted.' But his limbs, if not a cripple, how could he twist his limbs so?"
"How do other hypocritical beggars twist theirs? Easy enough to see how they are hoisted up?"
"The sham is evident, then?"
"To the discerning eye," with a horrible screw of his gimlet one.
"Well, where is Guinea?" said the man in gray; "where is he? Let us at once find him, and refute beyond cavil this injurious hypothesis."
"Do so," cried the one-eyed man, "I'm just in the humor now for having him found, and leaving the streaks of these fingers on his paint, as the lion leaves the streaks of his nails on a Caffre. They wouldn't let me touch him before. Yes, find him, I'll make wool fly, and him after."
7. Talk Stories, Jamaica Kincaid. There's not actually much direct talk in Talk Stories, Kincaid's collection of Talk of the Town pieces from when she was getting started at the New Yorker at the end of the '70s, but of course they are full of voices, hers and others. Here is a bit in the more traditional format, the middle vignette in a piece called "Three Parties." Is one of the participants Kincaid herself? Either could be:
"There's nothing out there," said the pretty girl's companion. "There's nothing out there except sometimes you see big rats--the kind that come from Norway. Or people in bootleg-cut jeans."
"Rats have buck teeth," said the pretty girl. "That is, they do unless they gnaw on something."
"When I look at Rockefeller Center," said her companion, "I say to myself, 'Now, that's a tribute to something.'"
"I knew a man who used to take three teaspoons of sugar every day in his morning coffee," said the pretty girl. "Three teaspoons of sugar. While he was drinking it, he said, he felt like Atlas. But shortly after, he said, he felt as sluggish as a mole."
"Fifth Avenue and Forty-ninth Street," said her companion. "I ran into a woman I used to know, and she had just spent the summer in Montana. She said, 'This summer and fall in Montana, four hundred and fifty-six thousand six hundred and twenty-three dozen eggs, two hundred and eighty thousand six hundred and twenty-nine chickens, and forty-eight hundred pigs were destroyed because the feed had become contaminated with a chemical that causes cancer in animals.' I didn't tell her that that was not news to me."
"Talk about sugar!" said the pretty girl. "I heard of a man who lived in Harlem and for breakfast he ate Hostess Twinkies and cola soda. Every day, he ate that, and every day he went out and committed a gruesome crime. When he was finally caught, he pleaded sugar rush."
"When I look at the Empire State Building," said her companion, "I say to myself, 'Now, that's another tribute, to an entirely different thing.' When I look at the Empire State Building, I make a mental note of all the things I really need."
"I took a trip to Port of Spain once," said the pretty girl. "On a banana boat. I ate a lot of bananas, I was bitten by a lot of fleas, and a man who drank rum talked in my face constantly. For a long time afterward, it was no to bananas, fleas, and men."
8. Waveland, Frederick Barthelme. This was a sneaky, low-key favorite of mine a couple of years ago, a post-Katrina novel that could hardly be more modest in its style or its ambitions, except if you realize its ambitions are hard-to-achieve things like human acceptance and redemption, of which this passage, in which Vaughn, who has moved into back into his ex-wife's house as protection against her sometimes-violent boyfriend, talks that boyfriend down:
"What's this deal you've got with her? You're living here, she's living here, she's going out with me--what kind of deal is that?"
"She's not doing too well," he said. "She's not feeling so well in the world. She's suffered some discontinuities, if you know what I mean. Things aren't quite going her way."
"That includes you?" Tony said.
Vaughn shook his head. "I don't know," he said, his voice going slower and deeper, quieter. The kind of voice you use when you're really getting tired of the game, playing up the menace. Even he thought it was funny.
"What're you laughing at?" Tony said.
"Nothing," he said. "I just thought of something."
"What?" he said.
"It's nothing," Vaughn said. "You leaving or what? I'm going up to bed."
"You're going to let me stay here in the kitchen?" he said.
"No, you're not staying in the kitchen, Tony. I want you to get in your truck and go home and do what you do. Do it out of sight."
"Oh, that's pretty," he said.
"What can I say? You trashed her and now you're seeing her on the sly or whatever. She's upset. She's having some kind of breakdown. I'm trying to cover the goddamn thing, and here you are at three in the fucking morning in the front yard. I mean, for Christ's sake, can you get a clue here and back out?"
"Whoa," Tony said.
"Yeah, that's right," Vaughn said. "Whoa."
"Tough guy," he said.
"It's not about tough guy. It's about being tired and having had enough. You know what I mean? Whatever you want to do is fine with me. Whatever she wants to do is fine with me. Whatever the two of you want to do together is fine with me. But if she turns up hurt, it's not fine with me. That's why I'm here and why I'm going to stay here. That's why you're not staying here. And that's about what I've got."
Tony scratched his forehead as if he was thinking. "Well," he finally said, "that makes some sense. You know what I mean?" He looked at Vaughn earnestly. "That makes a lot of sense. You make a lot of sense?" He looked at him again. "Tell me, are you a lot older than she is?"
"Some," he said.
"You look older," Tony said.
"Thanks," Vaughn said.
Tony tipped the bottle up and drained it, put it on the middle of the kitchen table, stood up, pushed the chair back in gently. "The power of persuasion," he said.
"Ain't it something."
He smiled at Vaughn and held out a hand, and Vaughn took it and shook it, and then led Tony to the kitchen door, and he strode out like a gentleman.
9. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson. You can open almost any page of his and find good talk. I've opened to page 87 in his fat Vietnam novel, where Kathy, a Canadian aid worker whose husband is missing, banters with the mayor of the small town in the Philippines where she lives. On display, many of the usual Johnson elements: elliptical but freighted talk, vague menace, linguistic attention and invention, and, in closing, a great and hollow sorrow.
Kathy uncovered the desserts and he studied the tray like a chessboard, his hand hovering. "So many visitors!"
Kathy said, "I think you conjure them up."
"I conjure them up! Yes! I have conjured the American colonel, and the Philippine Army major, and I have conjured that other man, I think he was Swiss, what do you think he was?"
"I didn't meet him. Or the Filipino. Just the colonel."
"And I have conjured the survey team of engineers. Mrs. Luis," he asked his portly wife as she entered from the kitchen, sliding across the linoleum floor in her straw-soled zoris, "what do you think? Do you think I am a conjurer?"
"I think you have a very loud voice!"
"Kathy believes I can conjure things," he called as she continued toward the rear of the house. "Kathy," he said, "I want the survey team to do some work for me. I think you can help me to pursuade them"
"I don't hold much sway with them, Emeterio."
"I have conjured them up! They must work for me!"
"Well, you'll have to do your own talking there."
"Kathy. The American called Skeep, do you know what he told me? The colonel is his relative. The colonel is his uncle, to be exact."
Kathy said, "Well!" He'd made a strong general impression, but she couldn't remember--conjure--the colonel's face in order to make any comparison.
"When I asked Skeep about the Filipino officer and the other man, he pretended he doesn't know them."
"Why would he know them?"
"These people all know each other, Kathy. They are on a clandestine government mission."
"Well, everyone's under cover." She herself appeared her under the auspices of the International Children's Relief Effort, an organization without religious affiliation, whereas in fact she'd come as the wife of her husband: a worker in the vineyards of Jesus Christ.
The mayor threw his sandal at a dog that wandered in, a perfect shot, dead on the rear, and it screeched like a bird and leapt out the door.
"It's completely outside of our ideas to gamble," he suddenly reflected. "Gambling is against the Seven Day ideas. I'm trying to put it behind me."
"I bet you succeed."
"Thank you. Oh--'I bet'! Yes! Ha ha! 'I bet'!" He quickly sobered. "But you see, I go to the cockfights. It's my obligation. I want to connect to the passions of the people."
"I'll bet you do."
Fifteen minutes had passed, and now a young woman--servant, neighbor, or relative--set down two glasses of ice water on the desk. Mayor Luis dabbed at the sweat on his forehead with the back of his hand. He sighed. "Your husband Timmy." The Filipinos all referred to her husband, for the first time in his life, as Timmy. "We will wait for word about the remains. It's taking a little longer. I hold out hope, Kathy, because it's possible that suddenly we might hear from some criminal elements of people who have taken him alive. We are victimized by so many lawless elements and kidnappers, but this time it can be said that they give us hope." He sipped his water while a completely candid silence enclosed him. No. No hope.
10. Children of Light, Robert Stone. When I first thought of this list, I thought of it as the "Children of Light list." The one book I knew would be on it was Children of Light, a novel I read about 15 years ago, of which nearly my only memory is thinking, as I read the first 50 pages or so, "Hoo-wee, this guy can write some dialogue!" Well, going back after 15 years, I wasn't quite sure what I had in mind. Skimming through now, the talking seems a little brittle, a little showily hard-boiled. That's the point, of course--these are jaded Hollywood types, and the main character, Walker, is a jaded Hollywood writer, for Pete's sake--but I had a hard time picking out a passage that would hold up on its own as "good talking in books." (Does it hold up in the context of the novel? I'm not sure, and skimming is no grounds for judgment--I'll have to immerse myself again in it and see.) But here's an early exchange, post-coital, with his agent's assistant, with whom he once had a thing (he also once had a thing with Lee Verger, the actress mentioned below). He's jolly, she's not.
"Hello," he said.
"Some fun, eh, kid?"
"Just like old times," Shelley said.
"Why did you ask me about the beds?"
"'Cause I work for a living," she told him. "I need a good night's sleep. If there was only one bed I'd have to drive home."
"You treat yourself better than you used to."
"Yeah," she said. "Everybody treats themselves better now. You're supposed to." After a moment she said, "Hey, Gordon, how come you're sniffing after Lee Verger?"
"Come on," Walker said. "Don't."
"I'd like to hear you tell me how that's a good idea."
"It's my script," Walker said. "I gave it my best. I want to see her do it. In fact, I want you and Al to set it up for me."
"Al doesn't want to do it, bubba."
"Do it on your own. Play dumb. Tell him you thought it was O.K."
"Why don't you take a rest?"
"I don't rest," Walker said.
"I knew you'd pull this," she said. "Al told me about your lunch. I wasn't surprised."
"Did you call them?"
"I called Charlie Freitag's office and I spoke with Madge Clark," Shelley said in a lifeless voice. "I guess they'll put you up for a day or two. Charlie likes you. Charlie likes everybody. They have to work it out with the location people, so it'll take a little time to fix." She stared at him with a vexed child's stare. He avoided her eyes.
"How about giving other people a rest? Like Connie, huh? Or Lee. Why don't you give her a rest."
He only shook his head.
"She's a fucking psycho."
"That's your story, Shelley."
"Oh yes she is, Gordon. She's just as crazy as catshit and you better leave her alone."
"I want to see her," Walker said.
"You belong in a hospital," Shelley Pearce told him.
He smiled. "Your boss told me the same thing."
"Sure," Shelley said. "We're in league against you." She got up and walked to the foot of the bed and leaned against the bedboard. "You know what crazy people like most, Gordon? They like to make other people crazy."
"You have it wrong," Walker said, "you and Al."
"Her husband is with her. Her kids too. You want to walk into that?"
"I want to work," Walker said slowly. "I want to get back into it. I need a project I care about. I need to work with people I care about."
"You're so full of shit, Gordon."
"Don't be vulgar," Walker said.
"You're an assassin, man. You don't even care if you don't get laid if you can make some woman unhappy."