George V(incent) Higgins Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Higgins, George V(incent) (Vol. 4)

Higgins, George V(incent) 1940?–

Higgins, a criminal lawyer and an assistant U.S. attorney, is now becoming an important crime novelist.

After the flood of books in recent years that have made crime seem either the epitome of glamour and adventure in modern life, or else just one huge joke, this first novel ["The Friends of Eddie Coyle"] by—of all people—a U.S. District Attorney, comes as, among other things, a relief. There is nothing glamorous or humorous about Eddie Coyle, and nothing remotely adventurous about the life he leads. It is seamy; it is drab….

Flat, toneless, and positively reeking of authenticity. Higgins tells the story of Eddie and his friends through dialogue; and he tells it swiftly and well. Characterization is at a minimum. All of Eddie's friends … seem not so much individuals as facets of the same personality. Rather than a weakness, I suspect that this may well be Higgins's main point.

I don't know what kind of lawyer George Higgins is, but I know now that he's a writer. With "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," he's given us the most penetrating glimpse yet into what seems the real world of crime….

Joe McGinniss, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 6, 1972, pp. 7, 22.

George V. Higgins won't like the way reviewers are going to scrawl "genre" all over ["The Digger's Game"]. He told an interviewer he doesn't think he's writing crime stories. He says he's writing "about people, a number of whom have a tendency to break the law." He's right. But most reviewers are unredeemable pigeonholers, and there is probably no way to stop them from winging "The Digger's Game" toward the slots marked "Crime Novel" and "Underworld Fiction." (His own publisher is already guilty.) This categorizing is unfortunate, for Higgins has done more than write a fast, gripping story about Boston's underworld. He has created in the Digger a deeply touching character who can make you weep with laughter and with sorrow and, one way or another, would be equally moving if he were out of crime and struggling for survival in a bank or an automobile factory….

As in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," Higgins's first novel, the dialogue here is perfect. The descriptive prose is something else again. There's not much of it, but what there is reads like Dick and Jane. Perhaps Higgins, like the Digger, knows his limitations and is trying unsuccessfully to keep things simple and stay out of trouble. Or maybe he's trying for low-key, throwaway drama. In any case, the effect is boring at first, then annoying.

James Mills, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1973, pp. 2-3.

This book [The Digger's Game], the most inneresting thing is the grammar. They don't dig, you remember Sister Aloysius used to call them, subordinating conjunctions. You need a subordinate clause, you write is like that, hack it? What the ----, they don't write it, they say it. This Higgins, works days as a Mass. assistant DA, he writes it down nights. He writes a book before, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I didn't read it, it sells like strawberry-flavored muffin. Think I'm kidding, there ain't no such thing, you read this new book. Open your eyes. Course there's more about money than muffin. This Digger Doherty, brother a priest, he don't cheat on his old lady, not since the last time. Must be the only guy ever come back from Vegas without getting laid. Dropped eighteen K there. His brother, he don't want to stay in an old priests' home when he retires, thirty big ones he gives the Digger, is all. Digger, he done a job for the rest. The book ends, he's off to San Juan with the old lady leaving the four kids home, don't know this guy Harrington's singing to the FBI. Some guys, they fall down in a jewelry store, they come up covered in crud. The other hand, there's this Greek shoots Torrey, the muffin man, fixing to shoot him. One chapter, you got these guineas, like in The Godfather, they speak grammar the way Sister Aloysius down to St. Joseph's taught us. Rest of the chapters, there's a bunch of Micks like you, me, and the Greek. Way I figure it, long as Higgins can stand to write like this, they're goin' to keep reading. Better than knocking over a bank, anyways. Me, I read maybe one, maybe two more, then I start getting pissed off.

Vivian Mercier, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 27, 1973, p. 57.

George Higgins, I submit, is the most hard-boiled of American crime novelists. Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald stuff their fiction with commendable quantities of death and realism, but their private operators—cynical vigilantes who wearily consider our corrupt species as it sinks into affectlessness and avarice—are essentially romantic, more than a little sentimental. Higgins, by contrast, writes comedies about the peculiar claustrophobia of the life of organized crime in Boston. He forgoes sentimentality, private eyes and innocent victims to write exclusively of criminals who work on each other in a community where sin is less talked of than are mistakes: presumptuousness, a change of allegiance, a falling off from competence. When his hoods philosophize, as they are ever ready to do, they impress us with the brevity of inarticulateness….

Higgins's novels bear two unmistakable identifying marks: first, they are told almost entirely in a dialogue so faithful to the fractured syntax of the characters that we must strain to figure out what is going on; second, the narrative, the criminal design, winds twistingly around a series of set pieces in which the action is suspended, often for chapters at a time, while the gangsters talk about sex and marriage, their weight and root-canal work. To these people the banal frustrations of life are more important than the taking of it. This is a fine comic device, and Higgins's stylized stories are the most entertaining of their kind.

Peter S. Prescott, "Talking Shop in the Mob," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1974, p. 99.

Higgins is not what he seems to be. Melvin Maddocks tagged him "a new boss of bullet-lettres," but he is really a local-color novelist wrapped in a crime writer's hide. Imagine Sarah Orne Jewett fresh from a Dorchester brothel or John Millington Synge exiled to Charlestown, and you have classy literary equivalents for Higgins' kind of writing. To distant readers his revelations of life among the Boston lowly must have some of the fascination attached to exposés of Parisian apaches or New York mafiosi; but for readers who come from Boston themselves, the experience is more complex….

It's Boston all right, mentally and physically, and those who have been there can echo George Bernard Shaw's description of Ulysses as "a repulsive but accurate picture of Ireland." Higgins has now exploited this world for three novels. His forte is the small-time criminal off duty, rapping with his wife and his fellows, and Higgins develops their monologues almost ritually. When the coster isn't jumping on his mother, we are told, he loves to lie a-basking in the sun; but in Boston, hoods spend much of their time worrying—about money, about their wives, about how their kids are turning out, about bills to pay and cars to buy and deals to arrange—and the rest of their time they reminisce about former jobs and old associates and incredible encounters with wondrously expensive and skillful whores. Higgins evokes clearly a bleak and continually changing world: kids grow up, customs change, new men take over from the dying or incompetent old men, power changes hands, deals succeed or fail, and most of this happens among stupid and cornered people….

Higgins' world, however, is a very hermetic one. We so seldom see ordinary citizens that they come as a surprise when they appear; we don't even see many policemen; we are locked into the milieu of petty crooks who take their orders from invisible authorities—ultimately from the Providence of the Patriarcas—and who perform their violence among themselves….

The action is almost tangential. The characters exist primarily to deliver their long monologues (one, on stealing and disposing of dogs, is a fine Faulknerian comic piece), and when they finally turn to action in the closing chapters it's almost a disappointment.

After three novels, it becomes apparent that Higgins is dealing with dangerous material. His mode is realism, and his topic is the banality of evil; the result too often is banal reality, as Paddy Chayevsky demonstrated a few years ago. One thinks again of Shaw on Ulysses: "a fidelity so ruthless that it is hardly bearable." But of course the reader of crime novels knows that Higgins has a special place, and he will read all he can. It's a mistake not to.

J. D. O'Hara, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 30, 1974, pp. 26-7.

When George V. Higgins's first novel, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," made its debut two years ago, it was clear that Higgins had broken new ground in tapping the perennial lodestone of crime novels. Higgins … displayed unique virtuosity in exploiting an uncanny ear for the argot of the underworld. His ability to capture its textures and rhythms in fiction without losing authenticity immediately established him as an impressive chronicler of the life style and mores of the small-time hoodlum for whom crime is the only thing that does pay. Moreover, for those of us who are aficionados of the genre it was a rare example of a member of the law and order establishment probing without pious conclusions or clinical transparency the behavioral and mental sets of the petty thief and murderer.

Higgins's second novel, "The Digger's Game" … turned out to be not quite so cohesive as "Eddie Coyle." Nonetheless, it was another engrossing and original portrayal of criminals and the peculiar crosses they have to bear. Once again, an integral part of the writing was the tough, realistic, right-on-target dialogue of the underworld.

Now, along comes "Cogan's Trade."…

The fascination of the book is not the heist itself, but the unclocking of the modus operandi of a particularly nasty segment of society. There are absolutely no good guys. None. And in this particular jungle there are no innocents. He who gets hurt deserves it in one way or another. Is that perhaps the cop in Higgins coming out?

In addition to the usual burdens, this novel also must suffer the inescapable baggage of comparison with its two predecessors, the more so because of the continuity of subject matter. "Cogan's Trade" uses to excess what dazzled us in the first two. The argot takes over so completely that the first third of the book is practically impossible to understand without benefit of prior exposure to the other two novels and/or a really first-rate dictionary of slang.

This is a pity, because reader perseverance ultimately is rewarded with yet another special portrait of a world of petty professionals that is often as funny as it is frightening. Indeed, midway there is a cool-cum-zany description of the exigencies of dognapping (as opposed to kidnapping) that uses the jargon to perfection. Until then, we are slogging through a foreign country where the language is not easy to pick up, even if we've read the earlier works. The flaw in "Cogan" is that there is not enough of our mother tongue to keep confusion at bay.

Argot aside, there are other aspects of the underworld that I, for one, would like to see Higgins turn his perceptive eye to exploring more fully. One is the role of women. In all three books women are shadowed background; passive participants, either whores or faithful wives….

Another is the role played by prison. Higgins makes much peripherally of prison as a communications channel, a mainline medium useful in setting up the next job. The correctional institution is as much a recruiter for the big caper as a place of punishment. But the treatment is oblique, and the players are only seen on the "outside."

For all its flaws, "Cogan's Trade" extends Higgins's cultural digs into the seamy nether-world of the savage seventies. Time now to turn his not inconsiderable talents to another part of the jungle.

O. L. Bailey, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1974, p. 10.

George V. Higgins is the master stylist of the current generation of serious thriller writers. In fact, the reader can lose his way in a Higgins novel unless the premise of style is accepted. Like James Joyce, Higgins plumbs and replumbs one geographic locale. His Dublin is the dark underside of Boston and its suburbs. Like Joyce, Higgins uses language in torrents, beautifully crafted, ultimately intending to create a panoramic impressionism. The plot of a Higgins novel—suspense, humor and tragedy—is a blurrily perceived skeleton within the monsoon of dialogue.

Cogan's Trade is as remorselessly inevitable as Higgins's two earlier novels, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Digger's Game….

As a novel, Cogan's Trade is a brilliant exposition of Higgins's Boston underworld as the flip side of all respectable lives of desperation. As a thriller it is that taut story whose drama is heightened by our own understanding of how it has to end.

We know what's coming. We don't know who will be blasted into eternity or what logic will finally prevail. But George Higgins reminds us all over again that the passage from here to the finale is an erratic and inconclusive journey whose meaning is only known in its final arrival—if at all.

Roderick MacLeish, "Improper Bostonians," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 31, 1974, p. 3.

Higgins is a miniaturist, and at his best a Fragonard of the nefarious. But in Cogan's Trade he is not quite at his best. He spends too much time away from his strongest character and sputters four-letter words until some pages read like excerpts from a washroom wall. Talk is his forte, and the talk in this book is uninspired. But the action is sharp, and Higgins provides some hilarious glimpses of the home life of the North American gorilla—one thug is on cortisone for colitis, another takes a contract because his wife needs some root-canal work. Cogan himself is a memorable meanie, easily the reptile of the month.

Brad Darrach, "Reptile of the Month," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), April 1, 1974, pp. E4, 87.

Cogan's Trade is 90 per cent dialogue; there can't be 15 pages of narrative in 200, unless you add up the "he saids."… It's authentic yet, excuse me, it's the same authentic. Some authentics in this world, even hoods, use complete sentences, but you couldn't tell from Higgins. There are eight or ten characters in Cogan's Trade and it's all one guy….

Higgins' narrative … gets inserted on special occasions like a table leaf….

But you're inclined to forgive. Higgins' monologist, all dozen of him, is a funny man…. Cogan's Trade has the effect of a well told elaborate dialect joke…. This isn't exactly news; it's Higgins' schtick, he's been at it since The Friends of Eddie Coyle. A Higgins book is predictable….

Cogan's Trade has a governor on it. The words are reproduced with stereophonic high fidelity, yet the people don't talk to each other. They explain, yes; but they can't persuade or beg or cry out…. Higgins can't manage emotion or conflict, and it hamstrings him.

The plot is an erector set with maybe seven pieces: scaffolding for conversations. Higgins can educate. He knows the etiquette of contract killing and dognapping. You will have fun with Cogan's Trade, crime seems to improve the sense of humor. But Higgins is in jeopardy. A sweet trick can become addictive. He'd better go cold turkey, write something very different, very fast, even under a pseudonym. One Cogan's Trade every year for 30 years is a life sentence, not an oeuvre.

D. Keith Mano, "Boston Laconic," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June, 1974, p. 655.

Mr. Higgins [is] the Balzac of the Boston Underworld…. [Cogan's Trade documents] shallow, scummy lives, but they are presented seriously, at their own level, and without a trace of condescending irony. The ideal form for the occupational novel is dialogue, and Mr. Higgins has become the finest dialogist of our time. His anxious characters gossip about cars and women and money and food and dentistry and gambling and raising children and the troubles of marriages that must be sustained through long prison sentences, and the talk—full of elisions, interruptions, obscenities, doublings-back, pauses, ruminations, interior quotes, repetitions, and incomprehensibilities—touches us with a thrilling intimacy. In his field, George V. Higgins is now in competition only with himself, and this, his third novel, is also his best.

The New Yorker, June 24, 1974, pp. 103-04.