A Change of Gravity

by George V. Higgins

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1898

With its emphasis on dialogue, character, and mood—and its neglect of plot—A Change of Gravity is a typical George V. Higgins novel. Higgins’s fiction concentrates on the realistic side of the lives of criminals, police officers, lawyers, and politicians. Higgins has a great deal in common with such nineteenth century realists as William Dean Howells, for his attention to the details of everyday life, and Henry James, for his revelation of complex psychology through conversations about the seemingly mundane. Higgins’s method in A Change of Gravity is to have characters talk about matters apparently irrelevant to the rest of the novel while the dialogue actually paints a painstaking portrait of the values of the speakers. Canterbury, Massachusetts, whose inhabitants, unlike Geoffrey Chaucer’s travelers, remain firmly rooted in a milieu they think they understand thoroughly, emerges as a microcosm of a larger world in which no one is entirely good or bad. Even the best people are slightly corrupt or incompetent or both, and only the occasional tormented soul is truly evil. What emerges in the author’s twenty-first novel are typical Higgins concerns: friendship, community, loyalty, and betrayal.

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The novel opens with U.S. District Court Judge Barrie Foote discovering that she may be involved in a case dealing with former politician Danny Hilliard, with whom she had a brief affair years earlier. It is typical of Higgins’s technique for the judge to disappear for the following twenty-four chapters, only to reappear for the conclusion. It also is typical for her affair with Hilliard to have almost nothing to do with the rest of the novel. The focus of A Change of Gravity is the friendship between Hilliard and his political crony Amby Merrion over almost forty years. Higgins’s narrative weaves back and forth over the years, examining the pair’s relations with several other characters, particularly the womanizing politician’s long- suffering wife, his mistresses, and the lovers of the bachelor Merrion. Ironically, Merrion’s main lover is the woman whose influence on Hilliard’s wife leads to his divorce. In the course of all this, much is revealed about middle-class life in the other Massachusetts, the one tourists familiar only with Boston and Cape Cod rarely see.

Higgins opens with Judge Foote’s perspective to establish the possible untrustworthiness of the main characters before his readers have an opportunity to identify with and sympathize with them. It is perhaps the main triumph of the novel that most readers are still likely to do so even after having been forewarned. From an initially sketchy, negative introduction, Merrion develops into a compelling character, not despite his numerous flaws but because of them.

Part of Merrion’s character is unveiled through his relationship with Janet LeClerc. He is both a court clerk and a magistrate, and when the simple-minded Janet is brought before him after being, from Merrion’s perspective, tricked into taking part in a confidence game, he spends considerable time trying to protect and rehabilitate her. Merrion wants nothing from her; he simply is repelled by seeing a harmless life wasted. He is unable, however, to dissuade her from becoming the lover of the violent lifelong criminal Lowell Chappelle. Most of what little tension the novel generates results from the fate awaiting Janet.

Though actively involved in Democratic politics, Merrion is in no way sentimental or liberal, disparaging most of those who enter his court as worthless louts. He is famous in the Canterbury courthouse for exclaiming, when one of his coworkers comments on the awfulness of their job, “There are days when this can be the worst . . . job in the world.” Merrion explains his attitude toward the Janet LeClercs of the world to Hilliard:

“I’m not saying now I think I’ve saved people. Nobody saves other people. Only idiots think they can do that; only bleeding-heart assholes’d even try. But maybe I’ve managed to actually grab some poor kid or some poor strugglin’ bastard and help him pull himself up out of the mud. Give him a break, maybe the first one he’s had, see if he gets just that one break, maybe he can save himself.”

The only way not to be engulfed by the chaos around him is not to give in to it. He justifies his and Hilliard’s often unscrupulous behavior with their occasional good deeds, an attitude for which Higgins, as usual, offers no justification.

Hilliard, a former high school mathematics teacher who becomes president of a community college after leaving office, is less thoroughly developed than Merrion. On one hand, he is a sentimentally sincere politician who actually believes in the trite views with which he dazzles the voters. On the other, he is a reckless egoist who never hesitates at having sexual relations with any woman who pays any attention to him, despite loving his wife and considering her his best sexual partner. Hilliard never shies away from his flaws, admitting to his friends that he loves newspapers referring to him as “Powerful Ways and Means Chairman.”

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One of Higgins’s virtues is showing how unpredictable and contradictory people are. Mercy Hilliard must finally divorce her husband because his indiscretions have been too flagrant for too long. She continues to love him, however, and even has sex with him occasionally. Mercy is encouraged to kick her husband out by her friend Diane Fox, who considers Merrion, a friend of her husband, vulgar. When her husband dies, circumstances throw the two together; they slowly become friends and, finally, lovers. Higgins’s characters, except for Arnold Bissell, the U.S. attorney prosecuting Hilliard for corruption, recognize their own fallibilities and do not expect others to be perfect.

The closest A Change in Gravity comes to a plot centers on the case Judge Foote outlines at the beginning of the novel. After six years helping Hilliard get elected and reelected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Merrion is rewarded by an appointment to assistant court clerk. In this position, he becomes the protégé of head clerk Larry Lane, who, estranged from his family, leaves Merrion his considerable fortune. The clerk then uses this money to buy memberships in the exclusive Grey Hills Country Club for himself and Hilliard. These memberships form the basis of the prosecution of Hilliard by Bissell, who claims Lane’s money came through corrupt practices. Ironically, the two Irish Catholics are allowed to join the club only during a brief period of financial need, and they are never accepted by the snobbish members.

The corruption theme, however, is not the center of the novel. What is important for Hilliard and Merrion is the process of politics, during which ethical considerations inevitably get lost. Diane Fox tries to explain what Merrion is blind to: “The two of you spent so much time thinking up ways to manipulate people to get him elected, and then when he was elected, using every bit of power he could get, any way that he could get it, to do what you two wanted done, you lost sight of everything else.” Merrion justifies his and Hilliard’s behavior by explaining how the public, including Diane, wants results; knowing how to deliver these results may lead into gray areas that may upset the delicate sensibilities of those, like Diane, who prefer to remain above the fray and criticize the doers who get their hands dirty: “Me and Danny’re the kind of people who believe that people have to be taken care of; the work has to get done, any which way you can do it.”

What is most notable about A Change of Gravity is Higgins’s delineation of character through details and individual scenes. Merrion, who sees himself as a man of taste, considers the neckties worn by Sam Paradisio, a parole officer, pathetic, but his attorney, Geoffrey Cohen, thinks of Merrion’s ties as “hideous.” Taste, ethics, and morality vary between points of view. Mercy is willing to overlook Hilliard’s infidelities until Diane makes an issue of them. Higgins’s attitude toward gray areas is summed up when Judge Foote explains to her clerk why she does not want Hilliard to be punished:

“Living legends should be more careful. Stay out of these little schemes and scrapes they always seem to be getting into, and then getting hurt by. Avoid doing things that’ll wreck their careers, if they get caught doing them. And if they can’t manage to do that for themselves, then we should look out for them, as though they were endangered species. Can’t have our legends becoming extinct.”

A Change of Gravity is full of telling details, from how Lowell Chappelle’s immense sex drive defeats the efforts of prison researchers to a police chief’s weakness for jargon. There are brilliant set pieces, as when a way of life is summed up by the contents of an apartment where Merrion stumbles onto a corpse—while the murderer snores away in another room. Another way of life is encapsulated by a judge who lets his clerk rule on cases while he takes afternoons off to tend to his investments. There are wonderful passages, as when Hilliard compares law firms to call girls or explains how those who see themselves as political insiders actually are outsiders and how the public does not really want to know what goes on: “They don’t want to see the game. They think it’s disgusting. If they had their way, they’d ban it like they do cockfights and bullfights and the dogfights in pits, and bear- baiting. Put in a king and then ignore him; that’s what they’d choose to do, if you let ’em.” According to Merrion, the voters despise politicians in part because the officeholders have been foolish enough to place themselves in the public’s power.

Higgins also excels at writing colorful, realistic dialogue that conveys more information than the speaker intends, as when Merrion describes those he encounters every day:

“Most of the people who come to the courthouse ’cause they’re in trouble: The way they stink, they deserve it. You should get in trouble for smelling like they do. They don’t wash themselves or brush their teeth or even use some mouthwash. They don’t change their underwear and socks, or their other clothes either. . . . Their breath’s foul, and it seems like there’s armies of the bastards. Day after day after day they keep comin’, an ill wind that blows through the world.”

Higgins has been justifiably criticized for relying too much on dialogue. Too often, a character will explain a point that would have considerably more impact if it were dramatized. When characters ramble on about banal subjects, Higgins, like Henry James, is forcing the reader to pay attention, to notice the nuggets of insight buried inside all this verbiage. Unfortunately, in A Change of Gravity, the payoff is too minor, not worth the effort of eavesdropping on conversations as tiresome as those overheard in real life. Certain characters and situations are memorable, but too much of the novel is whimpering and peevishness, signifying too little.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, August, 1997, p. 1847.

Boston Globe. September 9, 1997, p. D1.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, October 19, 1997, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, August 4, 1997, p. 64.

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