I recently read Gary Phillips’s One-Shot Harry, which I snagged with a successfully bid in the Authors United for Ukraine literary auction. Phillips is a Los Angeles-based Black author of twenty-two books, but this is the first I’ve read.
What most struck me about this book, set in 1963, was the dialog. Phillips’s characters speak in a remarkably engaging way. Yes, they’re Black and maybe their families originally were from the southern states, and some influences on their speech may be cultural. Having read some really boring dialog in my time (and written some), their talk was really fun.
My mother, born and raised in rural and small-town Texas, also spoke in a colorful way. She had a saying for everything. As a young person, I thought this way of speaking was much too countrified and worked hard to excise it from my own speech—going for bland, a bad choice. But, as I grow older, I find these long-forgotten words and idioms cropping up again. What do you call a baby or cat’s toy? A play-pretty.
Authors like to show their characters doing everyday things, perhaps in the hope that because going to the grocery store, putting in a load of laundry, and filling the tank with gas are tasks everyone does, readers can relate to them. But these quotidian activities are, let’s face it, mostly boring. What makes them interesting enough to put in a book is how the character feels about them and how they describe them. If Mercedes dreads the grocery store because one of the produce workers always manages to brush up against her, or if doing the laundry reminds her of the time the dye from a new red t-shirt turned all her husband’s underwear pink and he hit her for it, then it’s getting more interesting. What’s more, none of these tasks needs to be talked about in a ho-hum way.
Here’s an exchange as I might write it:
“I’m a substitute math teacher. But I’m working in the Bradley campaign more these days.”
“What’s math got to do with it?
“I look for patterns, where to find likely voters, based on their interests and affiliations.”
“You can figure all that out?”
Here’s how Phillips did it:
“I’m a substitute teacher. I teach algebra and geometry in high schools and at a couple of community colleges [note how the specifics add realism]. But I’m doing more of the Bradley kind of work these days.”
“How does the math work in that situation?”
“I look for the patterns to develop profiles. Frequency of voters in an area—break it down by those who attend church, got to PTA meetings and so on [more specifics]. It’s boring shop talk, but you asked.”
“No, I’m digging it [toss in some slang]. You break down how segments of the voters vote?”
“Exactly. Ultimately, what excites them to come out and vote. Now them cigar-smoking white fellas overseeing the state Democratic Party figure just running a negro candidate is enough to get colored people to the polls [her attitude toward the politicos]. Which admittedly is accurate to an extent.”
The effect of Phillips’s richer conversation is additive, not easily summed up in a specific example. But if your character thinks going to the gas station is going to use up too much of his cash and prevent him from taking his wife out for dinner, maybe he’d say more than “Going to the Sunoco.” Maybe he’d say, “Gotta fill up the damn tank again and turn over my Saturday night supper money to those profit-squeezing vampires at Rich Oil Company.”
Order One-Shot Harry from Amazon here.