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Books: The Man with the Golden Ear

5 minute read
John Skow

One fine day in 1972, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts drove to the city dump in Rockland, Mass., took 14 bulky typescripts out of his car and heaved them as far as he could into the trash. “I waited till the bulldozer came by and buried them,” said George V. Higgins recently, recalling the scene with satisfaction. “And then I left.”

So far, Higgins’ first 14 novels have not risen from Rockland’s slime to shame their creator. Most of them, he says, had shamed him already, by collecting thumbprints and rejection letters from virtually all the reputable publishing houses in New York City and Boston. What gave him the courage to deep-six such a large shelf of certifiably lame literature, however, was an acceptance. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a gritty, amiably cynical tale about barroom lowlifes and courthouse small-timers in Massachusetts, had been bought by Knopf. Higgins prepared, at last, for overnight success. What followed showed why novel writing is a chancy trade. Reviewers loved the novel. But Eddie Coyle never moved higher than fifth on the New York Times best-seller list, and in 12 months sold fewer than 25,000 copies. Failure? No, success; most first novels aren’t reviewed at all, and most well-reviewed novels don’t sell 25,000 hard-cover copies.

Higgins, 51, grouched cheerfully about such matters over an easeful lunch in what must no longer be called the men’s bar at Locke-Ober, hard by the Boston Common. Books, as distinct from best sellers, just aren’t thought important, he says. He notes with disgust that even in the most literate city in North America (that’s Boston), the leading paper (the Globe, though he deplores its preachiness) barely bothers to scrape together a Sunday book-review section. And justifies this lapse (says Higgins, a onetime Globe columnist) because it doesn’t get enough book ads. “Does the Globe’s sports section get enough ads for baseball gloves and hockey sticks? No. That’s where you see ads for snow + tires. Don’t book readers use snow tires?”

Higgins did well enough in the good-writing dodge, however — a fair-sized following watches the bookstores and grabs whatever he writes on the first bounce — to be able to quit his assistant U.S. Attorney post in 1973, and eventually to leave off the practice of law altogether. That year he published a superb second novel (16th, counting those in the Rockland dump) called The Digger’s Game. If somebody isn’t teaching this small marvel in writing classes, then U.S. education is in worse shape than we have been told. Probably not, though; there is an indictable villainy or two in the plot, and Higgins is pigeonholed, wrongly but irretrievably, as a crime novelist.

Higgins has since written a dozen more novels or so, and reviewers have continued to praise him, especially for his dialogue — though with diminishing patience, as if having an uncanny ear and using it were a bit too easy. This drives the author a little crazy when he thinks about it, and he thumps down a precept that could be carved in stone: “Dialogue is character is plot.” In a shrewd book published last June, On Writing, he approvingly notes that John O’Hara, a novelist he admires above almost all others, would tell a whole chapter with dialogue — a husband and wife, for instance, punching with their words, counterpunching, drawing blood. Similarly, novelist Higgins will let a conversation run on till Tuesday after next.

Conversations do that in Victories (Henry Holt; 298 pages; $19.95), Higgins’ maliciously funny new novel, set not in his usual Massachusetts courthouse corridors but in hardscrabble Vermont farm country. A slippery statehouse politician named Ed Cobb tries to persuade Henry Briggs, a retired major- league relief pitcher, to run for Congress on the Democratic ticket. Briggs, a born-and-bred Vermonter and no fool, knows this is like taking a high dive into a damp dishrag. But they talk. And talk. And Briggs and his wife Lillian argue. And argue. She’s an earache. When he was in baseball he played around, and now she’s getting back at him. Talk is plot is literature.

How about that talk, though? Higgins, who spent three weeks a summer in Vermont as a boy, hating every minute, flags a Vermont accent like this: “You’re working for another man, you’re liable, put things off. Not go through the barn today, make sure everything’s all right.” Which is the same way he signals a Massachusetts tough-guy accent, with that glottal comma in place of the missing “to.” Is this realistic? Of course not. Does it work? Sure, because it’s only a signal, to tell the reader’s ear to supply an accent.

What appeals so strongly about Higgins’ fiction may be that he lets the reader overhear men sizing up other men, judging them, often not gently. (Mostly men, yes; his women characters tend to be not much more than complications in the lives of their menfolk.) In The Progress of the Seasons, a 1989 book nominally about Boston’s accursed Red Sox baseball team but mostly about the author’s family, Higgins offers a shimmering truth: Irish Catholic males can’t talk to one another about important personal matters. (Scandinavian Protestant males can’t either, for the record.) So he, his father and his grandfather talked about baseball with deep seriousness, as if it mattered, thus showing their love.

Higgins’ characters jaw endlessly about politics, the law and sports, showing but never speaking of love, depression, disdain, fear. He says he’ll never run out of stories, though he keeps his bar-association membership current, just in case. He loves what he does, and has never collided with writer’s block. Advice to young novelists? Nothing simpler: “You’re a bricklayer, you lay bricks.”

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