Sunday, 9 December 2012

GEORGE HIGGINS' EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD: THE SHOTS COLUMN

NOTE: This review originally appeared as number 7 of my short-lived column 'American Eye' forShots Ezine. It was short-lived in part because I had trouble with the deadlines, as the openng sentence reminds me. Re-reading it in light of the preceding IT post on Killing Them Softly makes me think it might be time to revive it.

  
There’s a reason why September’s American Eye is late. It is because I was reading with one American eye shut, knowing that when I finished this collection of George V Higgins’ ‘uncollected’ short fiction, there would be nothing else of Higgins left for me to read for the first time. Not that the prospect of revisiting the work of the writer I consider the best and most original voice in crime fiction between Richard Stark and James Ellroy is depressing. But the idea that Higgins had some untold tales I will now forever miss just might be.

I say ‘uncollected’ because in fact, Higgins published a short-story collection, The Sins Of Our Fathers, in this country, and three of the tales included here were also in that book. That’s not a problem, really, although the editor of this volume, the prolific Matthew J Bruccoli, doesn’t appear to have done much actual editing: the book is littered with literals which detract from the overall appeal. There is, however, a nice, though short, introductory fond memory by Robert B Parker, who says that, like himself, as his career progressed, he grew more fond of writing about the characters, wherever that took him.

It’s true. Higgins appeal seemed to fade consistently, after The Friends Of Eddie Coyle
, in part because it was such an incredible debut novel. But I think there was another paradox at work here: because the better his later work got, the more out of step with the times it became. In The Mandeville Talent, for example, he addressed the problem directly, with a detective character who, in effect, takes a yuppie couple under his wing and teaches them about the ways of the world. Because that was what his books were always about, the way of the world, the way it worked, the way things fitted together, or at least the way it used to work. Actually, it might be better to phrase that, the way we think it used to, because my impression is that, deep down, it still does work in a clockwork of give and take, of favours granted and withheld, of petty corruptions: palm greasing and back-rubbing, and it’s just the outward appearance which has been changed by the children of Higgins’ generation, our yuppie Thatcherite laissez-faire society, or maybe it’s that the behind the scenes graft has been taken over by a newly empowered apparatchik class.

Higgins didn’t like this, and it shows in this collection. The most important, and interesting stories, are billed as two novellettes, though the first, the title story of the book, is actually a short-story; but at least neither of them actually has been collected before. The title story comes with a separate prequel, a very short coda, as it were. It’s about the roles of men and women in society as much as anything to do with crime, and what makes it particularly interesting is the way Higgins experiments with the passage of time, not the easiest thing to do when you are telling the story mostly in dialogue. So conversations sometimes segue from one period to another, seamlessly, to the point where you’re not even sure where you are until you check.

The second story, which actually is a novellette, or maybe a novella, who cares? is called ‘Slowly Now The Dancer’, and if that perhaps suggests Anthony Powell and time, well, the time part of the suggestion is accurate. Again, Higgins plays with time, but in this piece time itself takes the place of his usual story-telling technique: there is far more narration than you’d expect, far fewer of the line-ups of quotation marks (inverted commas) signifying that someone is telling you their recollection of a statement made by a third person to a fourth as recollected by a fifth to your original story-teller.  Instead, Higgins’ narrative slips and slides between periods of time, as a Boston son returns to his family home in Vermont, and basically takes you through almost a century’s worth of changing social fabric along the way. You can see why the story never sold; as Prof. Bruccoli says in an editor’s note, only John O’Hara could sell such things. He doesn’t mention that even for O’Hara, such stories were often a hard sell, and that was a good while before Higgins. It’s not a crime story at all, yet I can’t help but feel any fan of Higgins’ crime fiction, and how can you not be?, would love it.

‘Old Earl Died Pulling Traps’ isn’t really a crime story either; it is about lawyers, though, who are ipso facto criminals, and it’s another tale of changing mores, taking us through a couple of generations of a small town, and a few people, and how they interact while conducting the business of their lives. For lawyers, lives are business to be conducted, and Higgins’ realisation of this is really the bedrock of all his fiction. It was published as a limited edition chapbook. ‘The Last Wash Of The Teapot’ is similar, again no crime involved, only a lawyer’s resolution of two people’s lives after one of them loses her spouse. It’s presented as a draft for a narrative play, a Hal Holbrook-type recital on stage, but it works on the page in the same way that Higgins’ storytellers have always worked on the page.

Some of these stories are slight. Higgins had a fondness for shaggy-dog stories; maybe there was a touch of O. Henry about him. A couple of his novels are really just extended shaggy dog stories, and unsatisfying as a result, but in the short story format you can get away with it. The three Donnelly stories are like that, but none the worse for it, and ‘Landmark Theatre May Shut Down’ actually surprised me by being, in the end, a subtle variation on the shaggy-dog theme.

In some of these stories Higgins is also writing as a New Englander, not, as in most of his novels, as a Bostonian. One difference is that the New Englander has a finer sense of the history of the place, and the people who make up that history.
This was, to some extent, what The Mandeville Talent was concerned with, and why so much of it was set outside Boston. The other difference is that the world of urban crime is a Boston thing (and Providence, and Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport etc) but not something we associate with little places, and it is important for Higgins to write his characters in ways that are not dictated by their (and his) need to indulge in criminal behaviour. Anti-social, fine. That New England mentality is a big part of my other favourite of the stories, ‘The Habits Of The Animals: The Progress Of The Seasons’, which is really a study of marriage, as told by a character who just happens to be a state trooper.

He’s a Korean War veteran (like Parker’s Spenser) and he grew up in the Depression, and married in an era where sexual mores were different. That the story is set in a small town near Ossipee, New Hampshire, an area where I spent many of my childhood summers, makes no difference to my appreciation of this brilliantly judged piece of writing. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1973, and for good reason. But just imagine yourself as Higgins at that point: your crime novel is a smash, it’s being made into a small classic of a movie, and this serious story is one of the year’s best. No surprise he never matched that peak in public acclaim again.

Yet the novels flowed, and they constitute one of the strongest bodies of work for any crime novelist. And the stories flowed too. The last one in this collection, ‘Jack Duggan’s Law’ was chosen by Joyce Carol Oates for the Best American Mystery Stories collection a couple of years ago; it’s one of Higgins’ sleazy lawyer tales, and it is a good one. There’s an elegiac feeling about the book. His last published novel was called At End Of Day, and a number of his later novels were elegiac, almost nostalgic. This collection feels nostalgic too, But the overall flavour of this book is set out by the story titles. Beyond those already named, those like ‘An End Of Revels’ and ’Life Was Absolutely Swell’. Not that life WAS necessarily that swell, but that it was superior, in its way, to what it is now. Or least it was when George V Higgins was writing about it. He died a week before his sixtieth birthday. Sometimes, the easiest thing in the world is hard.

THE EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD
Carroll & Graf, 2004, $15.95 ISBN 0786716665
 

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