Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Three Masterpieces Etched in Stone

(Editor’s note: Boston lawyer, professor, and novelist George V. Higgins died a decade ago, at age 59, on November 6, 1999. Since then, many readers have forgotten his name, and others have failed to discover his novels at all. So we asked Brooklyn author Charlie Stella [Mafiya, Johnny Porno] for a little reminder of why Higgins’ literary contributions are still important. His response is posted below.)
Jackie Brown, at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.
That’s the opening line to what many writers cite as the greatest crime novel ever penned, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972). Ten years after the author’s death, it is truly an honor for me to pay tribute to my writing hero, George V. Higgins. As a student in a small college in North Dakota trying to come to terms with the fact I had no clue what I was doing there other than playing football, I was blessed the day Dave Gresham opened the paperback copy of Eddie Coyle and read the first chapter aloud to our class.

I knew people who talked like that; I had lived around them all my life. But until that English class, all I had read were sports biographies and history books. The little Shakespeare I had been forced to read gave me headaches.

People didn’t talk like this:
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
They talked like this:
“The day’s gonna come, it’s not here already. We’re gonna have to whack him out.”
One of the true masters of the crime-fiction genre, Higgins launched the reader in the moment through brilliant storytelling highlighted by what has become the standard by which fictional dialogue is judged. That said, being distinguished as a master of crime writing was a bittersweet pill for Higgins to swallow. He took issue with being pigeonholed as such and claimed to have written novels that had crimes in them, not crime novels.

Lord knows he never became a household name; except for Eddie Coyle most modern-day crime readers can’t name even one of Higgins’ books.

That fact, above all else, is sad.

The two novels that followed, The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974), were a pair of masterpieces equally as good as Eddie Coyle and were appreciated by readers more inclined to dismiss what passed for usual crime fare (commercially successful formulaic stories about private investigators, journalists, lawyers, etc., who pursue bad guys). Higgins’ many fans knew better. Such stories were as far flung from reality as Harry Potter.

Higgins wrote the other type of novel--the type very true to life about people in bad places (or just plain bad people) whose actions were predicated on survival. The world of Higgins’ first three books was dark and desperate and many of the crimes committed in them might well have been found on police blotters in any big city. Eddie Coyle, the Digger, and Jackie Cogan lived in a world where subterfuge, violence, and death were as common as a morning cup of coffee. Thus, their stories were a slice of urban Americana as undeniable as Fenway Park.

While reviewers were generally kind to books two and three, there was always that nagging qualifier regarding the likability of the inhabitants of The Digger’s Game and Cogan’s Trade and/or Higgins’ treatment of women. Those reviews always bothered me on several levels, but the one about women I found most disconcerting. Higgins’ women may not have been world beaters, but they couldn’t have been portrayed more accurately (as they were perceived by the men in his first three novels). Eddie, the Digger, and Cogan lived in an underworld stone age where women were foils; the women of Higgins’ first three novels, for better or worse, belonged there.

While it isn’t easy to like most of the characters in those novels, we’re sympathetic to Eddie and the Digger and both the jamokes fresh out of the can in Cogan’s Trade. We all know people who can’t get out of their own way, some more likable than others, but those down on their luck tend to get an empathetic nod. In the world of Higgins, they are the ultimate underdogs trying to make it day to day in an ultimate underdog existence.

Whether it was to discuss the purchase of guns (Eddie Coyle), the proper attire when about to perform a robbery (The Digger’s Game), or if a particular connected card game should be the target of a heist (Cogan’s Trade), Higgins saw no need for obiter dicta when fleshing out characters; their “speak” told their story. The treacherous world of Eddie Coyle was laid out in what Life magazine termed: “Dialogue so authentic it spits.”

All three novels served as social documentary featuring urban Darwinism; an overview of how man survives an underworld as close to a modern state of nature as it gets. Higgins didn’t present the romanticized Mario Puzo version of wiseguys and their associates, but rather how bottom dwellers survive mean streets. He dissected cops and robbers alike; what they are and what they become. In Eddie Coyle, Higgins left no stone unturned in exposing the world of an ex-convict looking to reduce an upcoming sentence while balancing the books at home and keeping his connected bank robber friends supplied with the tools of their trade; a hellish existence that rarely offers hope.

Higgins solidified his reputation as a master of dialogue with The Digger’s Game. Digger is in his early 40s and has a nagging wife and four kids. He also has a priest brother who is street-smart enough to know when Digger calls, it can’t be good. Digger went to Vegas, had a few too many martinis at the blackjack table, and ran up a gambling tab on a junket that has put him behind the eight ball (a familiar place for him). His brother, near retirement and fed up with bailing Digger out, says Digger couldn’t “get five thousand dollars together in a bank vault with a rake.” How Digger is going to handle his debts is the stuff nightmares are made of. He robs an office and a Cadillac, and of course those small scores aren’t enough (his life’s story).

Cogan’s Trade features a couple of recently released desperadoes who rip off a connected card game. One is a dog thief and his discourse makes for some of the most interesting, hilarious, and offbeat dialogue I’ve ever read. The man behind the future score is another ex-con, but he’s also an inveterate gambler prone to leaving trails through his bookmaker. Jackie Cogan is the man hired to restore order in the Boston underworld, and everyone pays a price when he metes out justice.

I’ve been flattered with comparisons to George V. Higgins, but those have been more-than-kind reviews. Higgins did a lot more than mimic street talk. He conveyed the essence of a character in just a few exchanges of what passed for idle chatter; conversations for the sake of conversations that provided social, political, and moral backgrounds without six pages of exposition. The knockaround guys we meet in these three books are revealed to have some of the same concerns we all do, and thus provide snapshots of an American subculture not so unlike what passes for mainstream. While today we find that subculture clearly on the wane, Higgins left us with three masterpieces forever etched in stone.

So, who’s got it better’n us?


Dana King said...

Excellent overview. A lot of people try to write dialog like Higgins, myself included. Few, if any, succeed.

MP said...

I haven't read all of Higgins' novels, but I've read most of them. I always sorta liked the Jerry Kennedy novels, especially the first two.

John McFetridge said...

Good post. I just finished reading Cogan's Trade and it is as good as the first two.

I think you nail it with this: These books, "... were appreciated by readers more inclined to dismiss what passed for usual crime fare."

What's that line about there being only two kinds of music, good and bad? There are only two kinds of books and these are the good kind.

Anonymous said...

I think The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the greatest novel I've ever read (and, as I said in my review, I think Johnny Porno might be as good.

I disagree that his subsequent books were as great. I think some of them were terrific, some were pretty good, but he never quite nailed it again the way he did it his first one.

Anonymous said...

Anybody who likes George Higgins' writing should read hia new bio--George V. Higgins: The Life and Writings, by Erwin Ford.

REally unlocks Higgins' life, turbulent, brilliant, busy, and self-deestructive. Clean writing, not an extra word in the whole book.

I highly recommend, since the author really treats Higgins fairl.

Charlieopera said...

That's the bio I read this past summer, the Ford one. GREAT.