George V(incent) Higgins Essay - Higgins, George V(incent) (Vol. 7)

Higgins, George V(incent) (Vol. 7)

Higgins, George V(incent) 1940(?)–

Higgins, said one reviewer, is the Balzac of the Boston Underworld. He is an American criminal lawyer and his first novels were called "the most hard-boiled of American crime" fiction.

In setting and ambience, George V. Higgins' fourth novel [A City on a Hill] moves a considerable distance away from its predecessors. The Boston underworld has been replaced by the underside of politics, in Washington, Boston and points beyond. The small-time crook scruffing out his marginal existence has been replaced by a small-time political operator half-heartedly carrying out the instructions of the congressman for whom he works. The crook's feckless search for the big haul that will put him on Easy Street has been replaced by the politico's maneuvering to attach himself to a winner.

It is a noteworthy change for Higgins—the book is billed as "a stunning new departure"—yet in important respects it is no change at all. In politics as in crime, Higgins' interest lies with those who work in the shadows. He is as concerned as ever with hopes that go unrealized, prospects that never materialize, ambitions that prove excessive. As in the first three novels—which for the sake of glib categorization can be called "mysteries" though they are far more than that—he deals almost exclusively in dialogue, letting the story unfold slowly through the frequently cryptic conversations of his characters.

But what worked so brilliantly for Higgins with the petty thugs of Boston works less satisfactorily with the second-banana politicians of Boston. A City on a Hill contains many perceptive observations about the machinations of politics and political people, but Higgins does not seem secure of his territory…. A City on a Hill simply does not have the authenticity, the sureness, of the earlier novels. When it does have authenticity, Higgins has moved from Washington back to Boston, to the people he knows….

A City on a Hill is a novel in which almost nothing happens. The same may have seemed true to some readers of Higgins' crime novels, yet all the circumlocutions of the barroom and street-corner conversation led toward points that became increasingly clear as the novels unfolded. Here, for the most part, the circumlocutions are merely circumlocutions. The characters talk and talk and talk, sounding less like politicians than caricatures of "Higgins characters." If the talk were more convincing, the slow pace of the novel would be not merely bearable but an intrinsic part of the action; it is impossible, however, to sustain interest in a "talky" novel when the talk is not good.

Higgins has an uncommon ability to create a character in a sentence or two, even a nuance or two, and it does not desert him here…. As in the earlier novels there are some delightful digressions, vignettes that stand solidly on their own.

Jonathan Yardley, "What Happens?" in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 12, 1975, p. 29.

Blessed with an ultra-high-fidelity ear for the illiterate and foul-mouthed argot spoken in this combat zone ["the verminous underbelly of Boston crime, a crepuscular world of second-rate hoods, corrupt police detectives and aging floozies"], Higgins constructed [his first three novels] almost entirely of dialogue—choked and elliptical grunts and snarls and side-of-the-mouth threats.

It was as if Higgins had come upon a latter-day Fagin and his den of thieves, and let their strangely affecting language speak for itself. With artful and sometimes maddening high-handedness, he offered no causes or hints, no clarifying comments; instead, the shrewd and gamy exchanges became a brilliant evocation of a shadowy netherworld, as pungent as the smell of stale beer in a decaying bar-and-grill or the stench of urine in a flophouse. Readers were chronically left in the dark about the antecedents of gunmen and pronouns, but what was flawlessly caught, as never before, was the perfect congruence of the punks' vivid patois with their crooked temperaments and marginal lives.

Yet by the time he published his third novel, Cogan's Trade, Higgins had clearly mined all the gold this putrescent if slyly engaging subculture was likely to yield. In his new offering, A City on a Hill …, he has abandoned Boston lowlife for the more complex and intellectually treacherous milieu of Washington politics. Unfortunately, he has imposed his familiar tape-recording technique on very different kinds of character and experience, and it boomerangs.

What you were not told about the petty thieves and blundering hooligans of Boston scarcely mattered: They were small-potato conspirators to whom bad things happened as they made bad things happen, as much victims of their own mean scheming as the banks they hit and the stool pigeons they knocked off. In A City on a Hill, however, the nonstop talkers are Congressmen, judges, lawyers, and educated, ferocious women. As they speak, we hear only the waffling platitudes, the pseudotough political catchwords, that are part of the hot air we breathe all the time, and rather than intriguing us, the palaver puts us to sleep. Moreover, the fact that we are given nothing more than random jigsaw pieces—that frequently we don't know who or what in the hell the characters mean—is as fatal to this novel as it was remarkably effective for the books about the ethical morons in Boston. (p. 17)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), April 28, 1975.

George V. Higgins doesn't tell stories; he allows us to eavesdrop. In "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and its two successors, "The Digger's Game" and "Cogan's Trade," we slid down a rabbit hole into a Boston underworld where small-time hoods were already hard at work, swapping guns and diversionary anecdotes. What they were really up to was our job to figure out. One thing we soon figured out was that Higgins's realistic dialogue—like that of Hemingway and O'Hara—was as formalized as an eclogue. Posing as a tough-guy documentarian, Higgins is an experimental virtuoso. (p. 79)

Walter Clemons, "The Election Connection," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1975, pp. 79-80.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle prompted a bewildered Norman Mailer to testify 'What I can't get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.' Higgins captures the authentic voice of the American criminal with as much skill as E. Richard Johnson (Mongo's Back in Town, Silver Street, The Inside Man, Cage Five is Going to Break) and, in so far as Johnson is presently serving a forty-year jail sentence for armed robbery in the United States, this is no mean achievement. (p. 67)

The confrontations between very violent villains, the law and lay victims contribute to a patchwork of viciousness and fear rarely paralleled in modern American crime fiction. Frequently the patchwork exceeds E. Richard Johnson's in its colourful intensity. This derives from the hermetic society which the villains inhabit along with the Law. Neither permit escape of any sort at all. It is, as it were, recidivist fiction. Once you step across the threshold you don't look behind you; or, if you do you get a bullet in the back. As the barman says to the cop about the betrayal of villains: 'I'll just have to spend the rest of my life … Being somewhere, hiding out. And you cannot hide out … you just cannot hide out.'

The nightmare, a vision of free will paralysed, so accurately conveyed in The Friends of Eddie Coyle wherein the criminal has everything to fear, not just from the Law but from his friends too, is the essence common to George Higgins' first three novels…. Everyone is trapped by his own devices in these three stories, which add up to a portrait of Boston as a place overrun by cannibalistic rats threatening by the energy they generate to break out of George Higgins' laboratory at any moment.

So it was not surprising that their political cousins, related by their deviousness if not criminality, seem to break out in his new and fourth novel, A City on a Hill. (p. 68)

George Higgins' hill, a sort of Waterrat Down, is peopled if not overrun by unfortunates variously examining their ambitions, schemes for self-aggrandisement, regrets of past times, and fornication….

Pre-Nixon they would have been the creatures of a science fiction pantomime; but post-Watergate, post-Nixon, the author's problem is to make them credible at all. (p. 69)

Even George Higgins, a virtuoso editor of the dialogue of the American criminal, is sorely tested; he is forced, whilst excluding description, interior monologue or authorial comment, to invent a whining American speech, a confetti bag of twits, piss, ass and balls interrupted now and then by a barrage of adjectival fuck and fart. Not surprisingly the breath of life begins to smell a trifle sour. Talk is all and it's pretty nasty.

It is tempting to think that George Higgins is persuading us to consider a system defeated by its talk about itself; or that narcissism has rendered action quite impossible. But the clues are covert. The only institution which, qua institutions, ends up with some sort of clean bill of health is the American brothel. Could this be Higgins' metaphor for the Whitehouse?…

Good attorney as his curriculum vitae shows him up to be, Higgins lets his characters condemn themselves. He does so with enormous skill and savagery in a formidable and immensely readable novel; one which will hardly give E. Richard Johnson much hope for the sort of America he will return to after forty years. (p. 70)

Reg Gadney, "Boston Bums," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1976), June/July 1976, pp. 67-70.