Author William Boyle has come to be both critically acclaimed and well-known for writing about his native Brooklyn, but his latest crime novel gives away one of the ‘plot twists’ in Boyle’s own life. Not only is much of A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself set in the Bronx, but its rich detail also hints that the writer spent some time living in Throggs Neck.
The novel, hailed as ‘Goodfellas meets Thelma & Louise,’ begins in Brooklyn but quickly heads to Silver Beach, and the names of some characters might sound familiar to longtime residents, as will settings, especially many of the real life bars of Throggs Neck, including Alfie’s and the now-closed Clipper and Charlie’s Inn.
There’s good reason for that: Boyle married into the Farrell family, who owned the popular bar Farrell’s on East Tremont Avenue and Sampson Avenue that later became McGinnis & Farrell’s.
When Boyle and his girlfriend Katie Farrell lived on Quincy Avenue from 2006 to 2008, he and Katie—who he married during that two-year span in Throggs Neck—spent a good amount of time in the watering holes of the neighborhood, either on their own or with Katie’s uncle Bobby Farrell, whose house they were living in. Kate’s uncle Bobby, along with her father John, remain popular figures in the neighborhood, especially with anyone who has spent any time in bars throughout Throggs Neck over the past 50 years.
“It was magical,” Boyle recalled of that pivotal time in his life, when he began writing crime fiction in earnest while teaching English at Iona Prep and also teaching as an adjunct at SUNY Maritime. “As Bobby Farrell’s niece and John Farrell’s daughter, Katie was royalty. As soon as we’d show up, people would start buying us drinks. I loved hearing about the neighborhood through the stories I’d listen to at the bar.”
After a few hours in the afternoon spent with the old-timers and other regulars at bars along Tremont, he’d go home and write. Many of those Throggs Neck-based short stories found their way into magazines such as Thuglit, Out of the Gutter and Plots With Guns. Those same pieces of crime fiction were later published in his first book, a short story collection titled Death Don’t Have No Mercy.
“When I wasn’t working, I spent my time pretty evenly between the library or in bars, or just walking around,” he said. “I’d been to the neighborhood several times before we moved there, but I got to know it really well in those couple of years living there. It remains one of my favorite places.”
No wonder, then, that Throggs Neck takes center-stage in A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself, a gritty, madcap novel set in 2006 that kicks off with the main character, Brooklyn mob widow Rena Ruggiero, cracking her Viagra-popping neighbor over the head with an ashtray when he makes an unwanted move on her.
Rena takes off in her neighbor’s old Impala, heading to Silver Beach, where her estranged daughter and granddaughter live. Throw their neighbor, Lacey ‘Wolfie’ Wolfstein, a former porn star, and a bunch of pissed-off mobsters into the mix, and it’s easy to see how, as one fellow writer put it, “a thunderous locomotive of a novel, driven by remarkable characters and sparkling dialogue…dark wit and piercing insight” unfolds in A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself.
Like his earlier acclaimed literary crime novels Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, Boyle’s latest book brings the setting to life virtually as another character in the story, but this time around, it’s primarily the Bronx instead of Brooklyn.
“I like exploring the mythology of the city through smaller lives,” Boyle explained. “I like the way those neighborhoods can feel like small towns. My neighborhood in Brooklyn—or neighborhoods, really, since I grew up on the border of Gravesend and Bensonhurst—have a lot in common with Throggs Neck, or at least they did at some point. But there are big differences too, one being the lack of a bar culture in my part of Brooklyn, or really anything cultural that’s not food-related. But also, I was always struck by the sense of community in Throggs Neck. My neighborhood in Brooklyn might have been like that once, but by the time I was growing up, it felt a lot more like everyone was just watching out for themselves.”
Boyle, who now lives with his wife and family in Oxford, Mississippi, also has another feather in his cap indicating that he might have been born in Brooklyn, but can be counted among true Bronxites: He had to battle it out with copyeditors working on A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself over the fact that the neighborhood of Throggs Neck is spelled with two ‘Gs,’ while the bridge and expressway only have one. “That’s what Katie’s family tells me is right,” he said.