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."