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Voices -- Donald E. Westlake, 1933 - 2008

January 1, 2009 |  4:19 pm

Book Review

Playing Politics With a Master of Dialogue
VICTORIES By George V. Higgins Henry Holt & Co.: $19.95; 298 pp.)

December 2, 1990

1972_0507_westlake By Donald E. Westlake

Westlake is a novelist and screenwriter. His most recent book is "Drowned Hopes" (Mysterious Press), and his latest screenplay adaptation is "The Grifters," due out next month.

Probably the worst thing that ever happened to George V. Higgins was success. When "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle" was published in 1972, it was that rarest of things under the sun, something new, and readers gobbled it up like the fresh taste it was.

Unfortunately, however, Higgins wound up praised and remembered for the wrong accomplishment. What people saw was an ex-prosecutor who had listened to and was reporting on criminal speech in an excitingly different and realistic way. This elliptical rump-sprung dialogue, overheard by the reader but not directed at him, full of half-revealed mysteries and unexpected depths of duplicity, seemed like the real thing at last, and catapulted Higgins to fame.

If that were the whole story, if Higgins were merely another guy with a stylistic stunt, like Jeffrey Farnol or Damon Runyon, there would soon have been little reason left to read him. Once you know the stunt, once you can hear the music in your head even before you open the book, why open the book? And other guys--Elmore Leonard, most noticeably--were using similarly bumpy dialogue rhythms for reasons of their own.

But that wasn't the whole story. Higgins was never trying to be merely a hard-boiled crime novelist, one step to the right of the private-eye people; what he was trying to do was write novels. And what linked the characters of his various books was not the world of the criminal but a love of talk.

Higgins' characters wallow in narration and description and mere jazzing around. Stuck together in a car on a long drive across New England, they tell one another stories, recounting in detail the dialogue from those previous adventures. Faced with a decision, they talk it out together, reminding one another of possibly useful parallel situations from the past, worrying the issue with a flood of words.

Since it wasn't really crime stories Higgins was trying to write, his interest from the beginning was never in the caper itself. His interest was a novelistic one: What do his characters want? What are they willing to do to one another to get what they want? How do they manipulate, struggle, excuse? Why do they want what they want, and what happens inside them when they either do or do not get it?

As Higgins, in later novels, moved away from the world of Eddie Coyle, following his true interests into the lives of other characters in other settings, critics and readers alike were annoyed and disappointed. Where were the wonderful romantic losers? Where were the great bouquets of overheard dialogue in grimy smoky bars, the cheap betrayals glancingly alluded to, the flop sweat sheening on those sallow, doomed faces? From his sudden initial burst of success, Higgins soon ebbed into a middle range of unexcited acceptance, publishing roughly one book a year, all of them rewarding but none frantically anticipated.

It may be time to reassess Higgins, and "Victories", his 22nd book in 22 years, just may be the proper vehicle for it. Beginning with the title. Anyone with even the slightest acquaintanceship with the Higgins world will know that within it there are no total victories, that it would be impossible for Higgins to refer to victory without an ironic edge. And his whole career has been an ironic victory, has it not?

Henry Briggs, the reluctant hero of "Victories," is a retired ballplayer, a onetime relief pitcher, a star but never a superstar, now sharing a small-town New Hampshire home with a shrewish wife. He's semi-estranged from his grown son and daughter, and through a local politico has taken a job as game warden, which he treats seriously and fairly. Now is 1967, with anti-Vietnam feeling just beginning to show its political muscle, and the local Democratic pols persuade Henry to run for Congress against the entrenched Republican officeholder. Henry doesn't know it, but the pols fully expect him to lose. He's merely the sacrificial lamb, put out there to protect the regulars from the growing power of anti-war radicals within the Democratic party.

There have been any number of political novels written in this politics-besotted nation, but rarely if ever one with the particular angle of view of "Victories." On a narrow canvas--the struggle over one minor House seat in New Hampshire--and using a limited palette of dialogue and reflection and simple action--no big-league chicanery, no smoking guns of any kind--Higgins lays out as clearly as anyone ever has just how this hopeful hopeless buoyant ridiculous self-governing scheme of ours operates. It probably would be a good idea for the Russians en masse to read this book, to learn before it's too late just what sort of new game they've decided to learn to play.

If Higgins has a major flaw, and he does, it is in his portrayal of women. Apparently he has never been in the presence of an actual woman; how else explain the clumsy failures of this normally brilliant observer? Women are more than a mystery to him, they are blank spaces with names.

One of the most telling ironies of "Victories" is surely an unconscious one: The female character who grates the least is mute. This from a master of dialogue. And the most awful character is a New York woman, a political fund raiser, who marches on for one scene of dreadful monologue--thudding bricks of prose, no cross-pollination of chat from the other characters at all--and then marches away again, dragging a whole lot of the novel's credibility with her.

In order to keep his hero from seeming too good to be true, Higgins assures us he's a womanizer, but not once do we see what that means. Not once does Henry interact with a woman as though he has any interest in her at all. Far from being the womanizer Higgins claims, his Henry is clearly sexless, a nice guy who's polite to the ladies, operates on equal terms with men, and tries to behave decently.

For a writer whose goals are high and honorable, it must be a tragedy to be so totally unable to cope with half the human race. It has to harm every serious attempt he ever makes, and suggests he's best off after all in those smoky male-only bars.

Which is a pity; what he sees, he sees with wonderful clarity. For a nitty-gritty study of politics at ground level, you will not find a better novel anywhere than "Victories."