Written by William Boyle — Life has been a struggle for Rena Ruggiero ever since her mobster husband Gentle Vic Ruggiero was murdered on the porch by a punk named Little Sal. Adding insult to injury, Rena found out at that her daughter Adrienne had been having an affair with Vic’s right-hand-man, Richie Schiavano, since she was a teenager. Rena’s confrontation with her daughter resulted in a decade-long estrangement from both Adrienne and granddaughter Lucia, who is now 15.
Rena has spent the past decade quiet and alone in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, but everything changes when her 80-year-old neighbour Enzio makes an unsolicited sexual advance toward her one afternoon. Not knowing what to do to protect herself, she smashes his head with a heavy glass ashtray. It knocks him out cold. As the blood pools on his carpet, worried that she has accidentally killed Enzio and with no one in Brooklyn to lean on, Rena panics and steals the old man’s mint-condition 62 Chevy Impala and heads to her daughter’s house hoping for an impromptu reunion.
A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself is the fourth novel by the Brooklyn native William Boyle. His first, Gravesend, named after the Brooklyn neighbourhood where it takes place, was shortlisted for the John Creasey CWA New Blood Dagger in 2018 and his last novel, The Lonely Witness, used the same character-driven style, along with Brooklyn as the locale. Boyle’s output has been impressive and his use of Brooklyn is exciting, as surprisingly few mainstream contemporary crime writers set their books there.
Up in the Bronx, Adrienne is not welcoming to Rena and rejects reconciliation. A nosey neighbour called Lacey Wolfstein overhears the conversation and invites Rena into her place as a consolation. Wolfstein, a retired adult movie star who’s around Rena’s age, has spent her last decade fleecing rich men out of small fortunes in Florida before returning to the Bronx to retire. But the calm is short-lived; a hullabaloo ensues when one of Wolfstein’s marks shows up, demanding his money back as well as her love. The two older ladies both look to that 62 Impala as the only viable escape option.
As if that wasn’t enough, Vic’s old partner Richie Schiavano makes a power move against the Brooklyn mob, setting off a chain of events leading to his eventual arrival in the Bronx with a suitcase full of money and a need to run. He asks Adrienne to come with him and with all these separate threads being spun by the author you just know things are going to come to a head in a chaotic spectacle that will play out like a scene straight from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The story quickly turns into a road trip, with a cat and mouse game which mostly pits the men against the women. It is a chaotic ride that is at times fun and exciting and at other times frustrating and hard to follow. Boyle pushes the zany into overdrive on occasion, and that, combined with a dependence on happenstance, makes for an uneven read.
A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself is a heartfelt character-driven novel, which is fun and dynamic with an unbelievably crazy road trip involving characters you just wouldn’t expect. The story of how these women, young and old, deal with the actions of the lowlife and criminal men in their lives is worth a read, even though the author sometimes goes to town a little too much on Scorsese and Sopranos-style references. But Boyle is a good writer who, when he is in the zone, writes compelling and approachable prose that reads like a mixture of the best of Donald E Westlake and Elmore Leonard.
Rating: 4 Stars