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This one is for fans of George V. Higgins

I don’t think there are many remaining fans of George V. Higgins: he died 20 years ago, his popularity had been in decline for decades, and his only bestseller was his first book, in 1970, which was also made into a well-received but not particularly popular or well-remembered movie. His writing was extremely mannered, and he was a follower of the once-huge-but-now-nearly-forgotten John O’Hara. Along similar lines was John Marquand, who, way back when, was so successful that various critics felt the had to go to the trouble of explaining to the world that he wasn’t all that. I like Marquand, but now he’s down there with O’Hara in the forgotten bin.

Nonetheless, for those of you who share this niche interest, I have two short books (130 and 200 pages) to recommend to you. Neither book is new; I just happen to be recommending them now.

Peter Wolfe, Havoc in the Hub: A Rereading of George V. Higgins. “What enables him to evoke a setting, convey the essence of a situation, and glimpse the inmost heart of a character with such economy, is his mastery of the intimate detail . . . And it’s spun by Higgins’s command of colloquial speech. Slang and cliche in Higgins poeticize the prosaic. . . . A Higgins novel isn’t so much a substitute for good literature as an important aspect of it.” But, also, “As they stand, many of his descriptions . . . distract as much as they illuminate. . . . his passion for inclusiveness and explicitness frequently cloud his writing. . . . Despite its virtues, a Higgins novel can can say too much about itself and not enough about the reality we’re all struggling to make sense of.”

Erwin Ford, George V. Higgins: The Life and Writings. I learned a lot about Higgins from reading this book. Much of his personal and professional life during the 1980s was distorted by his getting conned into a tax-evasion scam to protect his profits from his celebrated first novel so he could continue to live large. Check this out:

He [Higgins] needed to find a way to keep some of his money. He consulted a specialist in retirement and tax shelters named Carmen Elio who had a scheme to save the large sums of money from books and movies. Elio suggested a way to hide several hundred thousand dollars from the sale of movie rights to The Digger’s Game. He bought several mainframe computers with Higgins’s movie profits. The computers were to be leased out, Higgins would claim depreciation on them for a number of years, and later sell them in South America for a profit. It seemed a perfect way to keep the small fortune Higgins would otherwise lose to the Internal Revenue Service. Higgins agreed and signed over the money for Elio to invest.”

“Sell them in South America for a profit” . . . what could possibly go wrong???

It did not go well, not just financially—and, yes, he ultimately did have to pay back the IRS, and he felt pressure to keep churning out books no matter what the quality—but, also, the whole long-drawn-out episode seemed to instill in him a bitterness and feeling of victimization. If Higgins had more of a sense of humor about himself, he maybe could’ve written a great novel about an author whose greed and delusions of grandeur led him to be swindled and then embittered—he was very angry at the Internal Revenue Service, but they were just doing their job!—but, no, that never happens. Higgins wrote some excellent books, but never that one.

6 Comments

  1. If it weren’t for your blog, I wouldn’t have heard of George V. Higgins! So far I’ve read The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Kennedy for the Defense, both of which I enjoyed, but I don’t know if I’ll read more…

  2. Kyle C says:

    Years ago I read The Friends of Eddie Coyle and another Higgins novel or two. I remember finding much to like in them, but I am mystified by the praise such as we see here that Higgins mastered “colloquial speech.” His characters perform long monologues that often contain embedded monologues, in which one character purports to quote another character’s monologue verbatim and at length to a third character. It’s enjoyable. But no one talks like that (or will listen to it).

  3. Nick Patterson says:

    “Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a great book, with a hugely memorable conclusion.
    I never made a connection to John O’Hara at all.
    And the movie (Robert Mitchum) in the title role ain’t bad.

    Elmore Leonard:
    “The best crime novel ever written”

  4. Ethan Bolker says:

    I’ve liked both Higgins and Marquand for a long time. O’Hara not much. I hope I get around to the books you recommend.

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