Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years

by George V. Higgins

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Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541

Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years continues George Higgins's effort to expand the perimeters of his fictional depiction of American (New England) life. His early novels impressed critics with the authenticity of their accounts of the lives and the voices of the men of Boston's lower class—its workers and petty criminals. Although Boston has remained the central ground of his fictional world, Higgins has broadened the social range of the lives and voices he recreates. The world now includes millionaires, politicians, journalists, ex-basketball and baseball players, car dealers, student radicals, a broad spectrum of lawyers (state and federal prosecutors, semi-seedy criminal lawyers, old school corporate attorneys), and, of course, a wide variety of workers and crooks. (It even includes an occasional woman among the protagonists.) The cast of Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years offers a millionaire contractor and his mentally unstable, institutionalized wife, Federal and corporate attorneys, hairdressers, nurses, and chauffeurs.

Although Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years, like most of Higgins's novels, employs a crime-and-justice plot, the principal crime here is a white-collar one involving the contractor's questionable political contributions; it occurred in the past; and the federal attorneys are more interested in using the prosecution to facilitate other indictments than in punishing the crime at hand. No one is very corrupt or very violent. The novel does not depend upon the conventions of the crime novel—cops and robbers, plans and pursuits, trails and verdicts and vendettas—to sustain the narrative. Rather, Higgins uses an inconsequential legal investigation as the occasion to examine the character of the investigators and the investigated. The values he emphasizes are those which preoccupy him in all his novels: loyalty (including loyalty to one's self: integrity) and shrewdness. Eugene Arbuckle, the contractor's chauffeur and one of the main voices in the novel, exemplifies the common man's version of these qualities: He knows himself; he accepts responsibility for his actions even when sued by an obnoxious drunk whom he had to knock unconscious; and he refuses to abandon a girlfriend who acquires the HIV virus. Even under heavy pressure from prosecutors, he cannot imagine betraying his employer. The wealthy Farley displays a similar self-knowledge and, in his relations with his alienated wife, an even greater loyalty. The loyalties of the prosecuting attorneys are more self-serving. And Steven Cole, the obnoxious drunk who sues Arbuckle and who passes the HIV virus, serves as the extreme embodiment of disloyalty.

Shrewdness is a necessary virtue in the world of Higgins's fiction. His characters, speaking in their own voices, nearly always present themselves as shrewd, knowing individuals. Even people who have been judged fools by others, when they speak in their own voices, reveal unexpected insights into others and even themselves. The strength of Higgins's moral vision derives from this ability to grant even the least of his characters a native intelligence (and it is a strength directly related to his commitment to dialogue as a narrative vehicle). The characters are continually engaged in reading their own motives and circumstances and the motives and circumstances of others. They know the ways of the world, and they know how to manipulate events to their advantage. They know how to maneuver personal relationships (usually through storytelling) and how to maneuver institutions, especially the judicial institutions.

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