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.
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...
(The entire section is 1898 words.)