Focusing on a small town in Massachusetts, Giardina examines the lives of five friends, particularly Timmy O’Kane and Billy Mogavero, in 1970’s Winship as the boys grow from adolescence to manhood. On the night of their prom, the friends follow Billy, their putative leader, as he once more crosses the line between acceptance and rebellion.
For years, Timmy has looked upon Billy as the go-to guy, the one most likely to get what he wants, rules be damned. But Timmy is of a more conventional nature, eventually marrying above his station, acquiring in the bargain an interfering father-in-law who constantly reminds Tim of his shortcomings as a husband and wage earner. Nonetheless, Tim lives in the excessive comfort of suburbia, he and his friends interfacing the world in search of success.
Still working in Winship, Billy has no aspirations, but when his friends visit their home town and offer a job with a comfortable salary in mall development, Billy grabs the brass ring as well. After his own marriage, Billy’s only real complaint is his wife’s inability to carry a pregnancy to term; it is this twist of fate that causes Billy to wonder at the high cost of success and whether this is the life he desires after all.
Timmy has lived in thrall to Billy’s magnetism, constantly judging the quality of his own life against his friend’s casual cynicism: “I’m your little excursion into the world.” Then one night near the projects in South Boston, Billy, his wife and unborn baby are shot and only Billy survives. Mogavero describes his assailant as a black man, and the city goes into overdrive looking for the shooter. Meanwhile, Billy is a media darling, the innocent bereaved husband. Only Tim is left with unanswered questions, the relationship between the two men strained by unspoken doubts: “I played a game with darkness… I believed I could escape it if the actual thing came too near.”
Reluctant to face the truth, Timmy hides behind the growing problems of his own marriage and financial dependence on his father-in-law. Billy, the thorn in Tim’s side, senses his friend’s ambivalence, amused by it and counting on its predictability, ever the manipulator. For his part, ultimately, Timmy’s flaws are more defining than the virtues he clings to.
Giardina plays his scenes with delicate irony, reinforcing the tension of the denouement, easy compromises that beget painful insights, youthful angst, extended family demands, the need to belong. White Guys tells a uniquely American story, a rebellious young man thrust into the stifling pretensions of upwardly-mobile Boston suburbia and unable to deal with success.
White Guys is burdened by society’s expectations, as well as Billy’s and Timmy’s complicated relationship, Tim’s almost adolescent fixation with the rebellious, unpredictable nature of his friend. Based on a real-life 1989 murder in Boston, White Guys has the same complicated layers of friendship so eloquently evoked in Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, defined by time and place, class and aspirations.