Boston

Into The Badlands Chapter 9: George V. Higgins

The Friends Of George V. Higgins

 

Flying into Boston in a plane small enough to disconcert the life out of me by sporting a propeller, I've got the two Boston songs I know vying for airtime in my head. On the mean and moody front there's the Standells' Dirty Water - Love that dirty water, ooooohhh Boston you're my home (some trivia obsessed  braincell pops up to tell me that the Standells were actually from Cambridge, the university town that sits catty corner to Boston across that dirty water). In the hippy sentimentalism corner, meanwhile, there is Kenny Loggins' Please Come To Boston as performed by Tammy Wynette ('you say please come to Boston for the springtime/ you're staying there with friends and they've got lots of room/ I can sell my paintings on the sidewalk/ by a cafe where you hope to be working soon').

 

From the airport I take the subway through the city centre and out the far side to Brookline, where I've booked a room in a guest house. Boston, like San Francisco, being a toney kind of place that eschews motels in favour of 'European-style' guest houses. The guest house is set in a tree-lined street, there are bicycles parked outside and worldwide student types chattering in the corridors. The room is pleasant and homey, with an absurd quantity of subsidiary light sources. And the whole place depresses me more than the tackiest motel.

 

There's little time for contemplation though; I have half an hour to get back into central Boston and meet George. V. Higgins for lunch. Higgins having been a lawyer, I figure I'd better smarten up, so I fish out a pair of navy wool trousers and a tastefully embroidered, if somewhat crumpled, dark blue shirt, and hie myself to the Locke-Ober Cafe in Winter Place.

 

Winter Place turns out to be an exclusive little cul-de-sac, adjacent to Boston's main shopping district. As I approach the Locke-Ober Cafe I suddenly have a presentiment that I should have remembered that Higgins was not just a lawyer, but a Boston lawyer. The presentiment, for once, turns out to be bang on. The Locke-Ober Cafe is a cafe only in the old money understated way that allows 'a little place in the country' to mean Blenheim Palace. In fact it's a Bostonian approximation of a gentleman's club dining room. As I enter the guy in the Tux on the door just looks me up and down for a minute. To jolly proceedings along a bit I say that I'm here for lunch with Mr Higgins. He sighs and says, 'Yes.. Sir. You will need a jacket and tie first. Over there.' He points to the cloakroom. I walk over and explain my predicament to a motherly type who is already rooting through her assortment of the kind of jackets and ties people leave in restaurants. In these cases I would presume deliberately. 'Don't look at it, just put it on, honey' she says handing me a tie. I should have taken her advice.

 

Instead I peeked. Polyester. Maroon. Cream stripes. A kipper without the courage of its convictions. The jacket that follows is at least plain black. Which is about as much as could be said in its favour. It's made out of some synthetic of peculiar unpleasantness to the touch. Its shoulders are too narrow and its sleeves too long, thus allowing me the unusual sensation of being constricted in a jacket that's too big for me.

 

Now George V. Higgins must be one of three things; remarkably polite, possessed of appalling dress sense, or accustomed to being interviewed by repulsively attired journalists. Whatever, he shows no surprise at being approached by this apparition. I tell him what's happened and he chortles a little before expressing his dismay that he could have forgotten to tell me and that I should not have known that the Locke-Ober is of course a jacket and tie kind of place, my God, the Kennedys used to lunch here. It's a formal, oak-panelled kind of place which is still a mecca for Massachussets powerbrokers - table tittle-tattle tends to run to ongoing trials and Mike Dukakis in-jokes. Higgins, himself,  is a big grey-bearded man in an eminently clubbable suit, with a judicial stare and a disconcerting growth on his forehead.

 

        He's an imposing man, partly naturally, partly through tricks he's learned in he courtroom. His attitude immediately is 'come on, impress me, ask me something I haven't been asked 100 times before'. Choosing the Locke-Ober Cafe to meet is all part of this stacking the odds in his favour. It's a place saturated in tradition, in which you need to know, without reference to the the menu, what to eat and what to drink - that the right move is to have the lamb chop becomes apparent seconds after I've ordered a steak sandwich. Similarly whisky is clearly the right aperitif; not having had breakfast the best I can do is ask for a glass of white wine, clearly a sissified choice. Meanwhile Higgins just watches, inviting me here is an apparent statement that he assumes any journalist will be a man of the world like himself. Its subtext is clearly a statement of who's boss. As is Higgins smart sabotage of the classic journalist warm-up biographical questions. Before I can ask him anything he produces two sheets of paper that he tells me will answer any biographical queries. The sheets of paper contain a basic cv and a bibliography and are 'headed standard press biographical sketch'. Like hey pal, the standard sketch will be just fine for you. The real function is not to tell you about his personal biography, but to stop you asking questions about it.

 

        Still it would be naive to expect lunch with George V.Higgins to be easy. In his books, after all, lunch tends to be an urbane battleground.  An example: in The Patriot Game a City Hall fixer, Seats Lobianco, is called up by a Representative from an Irish neighbourhood, Ticker Greenan. Greenan wants a favour. Before Seats will even start listening he tells Greenan that he'll have to buy him lunch, then maybe he'll have an ear free. They meet at the restaurant; Lobianco's there already, drinking a Bloody Mary. Lobianco, then, using a waiter as straight man, proceeds to ritually humiliate Greenan, while stiffing him for a huge meal. Then he gets down to business:

 

        "And you listen to me," Seats said to Greenan. He pointed his left index finger at him. "I know you. I've known you a long time. You've got a short memory and it doesn't help you none. You call about seeing me, you've got something on you're mind but it's temporary, Ticker, it's temporary. I helped you before, and I did what you wanted, and it was temporary. Many times, I did it many times when you asked me, and many times you forgot that I did it. All of the times. Now we are going to play with a little harder ball. This time you are going to remember. And this time you are going to do the right thing."

 

        So conversing with mist-ah Higgins requires some concentration. You say something hack or stupid or controversial he's not going to let it past. He feigns astonishment when I suggest that Vanity Fair carries some pretty good articles, and total dismay when I suggest that America is more interested in literature than England. After all the old country has a powerful pull to Boston snobbism. They may have thrown the British out of Boston Harbor, but they kept their value system. Higgins is very proud of his reputation in England; his handout is at pains to tell me that all his novels have been published in England. His short story collection, Sins Of The Fathers, has only been published there. He is also at pains to tell the world that the British Book Marketing Council, whoever they may be, selected The Friends Of Eddie Coyle as one of the 20 best novels by an American published in Britain since World War 2

 

        We've been talking long enough to be about a half way through our first drinks when we're joined by a lawyer called Bob, a clean cut and cynical Kennedy type, who used to work with Higgins some while back when he was in private practice. After the pleasantries have been exchanged and Bob has charmingly misidentified my accent as Australian, Higgins says 'well, let's get on with it'. And it's time for me to attempt to pry loose the background to the bare facts on the info sheets he's given me.

 

        Higgins has made his mark writing about the people that the general public are perhaps most likely to perceive as dishonest - criminals, of course, but also lawyers, politicians and journalists. These are also the people Higgins knows best. He has worked as a journalist and as a lawyer; politicians and criminals are the people he habitually dealt with (often incarnated in the same flesh). Higgins became a journalist after a spell at the ultra-prestigious Stanford University which, like Joe Gores, he abominated sufficiently to be on the point of leaving even though that would have led to him being drafted to fight in Vietnam.

 

"I was callow. I had signed up to join NavCad - Naval Aviation Cadets - and the reason I had done that was that I was at Stanford University. I loathed Stanford and Stanford loathed me, but in those days if you didn't have 2S then you were 1A abd that meant you went to Vietnam, as Bob did. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam on foot ('neither did Bob' says Bob). I was afraid I'd get my feet wet, and so I decided that I had an advantage which was, and is now, extreme peripheral vision - while I look at you I can see him spilling soup on his tie - and the navy just loved that. So I signed up for that in preference to getting my feet wet. What I wanted was about 20,000 pounds of jetfighter under me with rockets and machine guns and everything else. If they were going to make me go - and they were going to make me go - I was going to have one big damn thing with a lot of firepower."

 

"Then I developed a bleeding ulcer, because I really liked Stanford. And the morning I finally came to at the Stanford Palo Alto Hospital the doctor said to me, 'we've figured out what's the matter with you, you've got a bleeding ulcer'. And I said 'Oh hell, this is not good news', and he said 'well, the good news is you're young - I was 22 - and you'll heal, there's no need to operate'. And I said '...and I'll be...4F?', and he says 'oh, I would think so'. And I was! And that's the day my recovery began!", he says, breaking up in laughter.

 

So, instead of heading to South East Asia, Higgins found himself back in New England. He got a job working for Associated Press in Providence, Rhode Island, a hard town by the sea with a heavy Mafia presence. His next posting was to Springfield where a series of Mafia trials were under way. Attending these provoked a change in career; "Those trial lawyers were having more fun than I was. I decided to go to law school. Then I started as a prosecutor for the Attorney General's office in 1967."

 

"It's the only blood sport that's officially sanctioned. Ask him. This man makes more money in an hour than a trial lawyer can make in a week ."

 

Bob demurs. "Four days?" says Higgins. "Maybe", says Bob.

 

"These days I make more money teaching, per hour. And teaching is easier. I don't have these confounded judges interfering with me all the time."

 

"Let alone somebody on the other side standing up and attacking you!"

 

"I don't like that either!" says Higgins, laughing some more.

 

This was a remarkable time for US lawmaking. Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General and was trying to use the courts as a progressive force, pushing through civil rights legislation and so forth. Higgins, then a Democrat of no deep conviction, had doubts about the political use of the law; "This was the age of Bobby Kennedy's target prosecutions, it was called active law enforcement as opposed to reactive law enforcement, that meant we didn't wait for a call to come in from the police, we identified the people who were evil and went after them and we would catch them for cruelty to animals if that was the best we could do ,and... it was a bad idea". It was a bad idea, Higgins elaborates, "because it assumes that you or I are running the government and that we won't go after the good guys, but if someone else is running the government, who may turn out to be a bad guy, then they can use this policy to put us in jail. It's a bad idea, it stinks. And during this time I brought a case that I'm not proud of. I'm not going to go into specifics, but the man is now doing well over 20 years and yes, I was right, he was a bad man. But I didn't have the evidence, didn't have him."

 

Meanwhile he was always writing. His first novel appeared in 1971. It was called The Friends of Eddie Coyle and from the first sentence ('Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns') it was a debut of staggering assurance.  Its class and its author's dayjob provoked Norman Mailer to comment, 'What I can't get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz'. Of course, as with many good first novels it was a first only for the public not the writer: "I wrote fourteen novels before Eddie Coyle, most of them rejected by most of the reputable publishers on both sides of the Atlantic and I'm damn glad of it today.

 

Still he kept writing and kept sending work out. "I had a friend in California that I acquired at Stanford and he fell victim to drugs, which made me a passionate opponent of drugs, because they ruined him. I have seen some writers who have been improved by this stuff", he says, hoisting his glass, "I have never seen anyone improved by drugs. I used to send him everything I wrote. I used to lend him money to and he paid it back. Not a bad man, a good man. I sent him a story that appeared in the North American Review called Dillon Explained That He Was Frightened. And since my friend knew I was working on a novel, he wrote back and said 'Is this part of the novel?' Until that night it wasn't. That night I went into my study and put paper in my typewriter and started ... Jackie Brown at twenty-six... That's it. I wanted to know how it came out, and Dillon Explained became the sixth chapter." He waves his hand in the direction of the Locke-Ober Cafe's windows, "It was up here on Tremont Street that Jackie Brown said he could buy those guns."

 

Further novels followed quickly, books like The Digger's Game and Cogan's Trade that did not so much rework Eddie Coyle as simply fit alongside it as part of a continuing epic novel of New England lowlife and public life, a project owing as much to Balzac's Paris as Chandler's Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Higgins was looking to combine writing with setting up a private legal practice. "It was time to leave the US Attorney's office. I'd been there seven years. I completed a couple of appeals for the federal government and left to cover the Watergate affair, a job which gave me the money to start my own law firm."

 

The time in Washington also produced Higgins' least readable books. The Watergate book, cutely entitled The Friends Of Richard Nixon, is heavy going, especially at this remove; so too are the novels A City On A Hill, in which self-impressed types talk endlessly in a vacuum, and Dreamland in which Higgins puts aside his characteristic dialogue-based style in favour of the interior monologue. Both suffer perhaps from the dislocation from home territory and also from a degree of rhetorical pomposity creeping into the style - these are the only books of his that read like they're written by a lawyer. Higgins comments that; " A City On A Hill is not a good novel which is mostly my own fault. In fact it's entirely my own fault and I'd like it back. I did Dreamland because I wanted to see if I could do a book where the narrator was a liar. And he was and as I got into the book he turned out to be crazy as well. It's a favourite of college professors today because it's so damn difficult and inaccessible. Would I do it again? No, but only because I've done it once."

 

At which point lunch arrives; lamb chops for Bob and George, steak sandwich for me, hash browns and red wine all round. The conversation turns to Higgins' years as a practising lawyer, and in particular the extent to which Higgins draws from real life characters for his fiction. Higgins himself denies any such thing, which has a slight ring of the 'he would say that, wouldn't he' about it. Bob, however, decides its time to wind Higgins up a little.

 

"What was the name of that judge in Outlaws?", he asks, innocently enough.

 

Higgins laughs and says; "Hanging Black Buck."

 

Bob laughs too, and slips in the sucker punch; "But he was fair. Frank Keating was always fair."

 

"It was not Frank Keating", says Higgins, stern as can be.

 

"All right", says Bob with bland insincerity, and they both start laughing. But Bob's not going to leave it there. "I remember some of the dialogue being reminiscent of a cross between Frank Keating and our friend the Federal Judge...

 

"I've met him!" roars Higgins

 

..now passed away. Does his name escape me?"

 

"Yes!"

 

"...Ski....Charles Wassanski?"

 

"Who offered to put me in jail on several occasions when I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney."

 

"Mr Higgins", Bob does his judge impersonation, "I find your brief very, very, very, compelling. Extremely well-briefed, right on the law in all points, but not persuasive. Motion denied."

 

Before another round of hysterics can break out a figure hoves toward our table. "Hi, George" says Bob to the figure, who has a certain air of gormlessness about him, a little reminiscent of Tony Curtis' yacht owner impersonation in Some Like It Hot.

 

"Hi, Bob, how you doing?"

 

"Fine George, just fine. George this is George. George this is John."

 

The formalities completed this other George moves off. Having given him just about enough time to get out of earshot, Higgins turns to Bob and says; "Does he have money?" (As in why the hell else would you be polite to such a geek).

 

Bob leans back and exhales; "The guy must have around 32 million unecumbered dollars. I said unencumbered."

 

"Ah", says Higgins, the world living down to his expectations.

 

So we talk some more about writing. I mention that Higgins' big novel of Boston politics, A Choice of Enemies, is my favourite of his books. He says it's his too, and as far he's concerned, he should have damn well won a Pulitzer for it, In fact Anne Tyler got the Pulitzer that year, and Higgins is less than charitable, not to say printable in his views on that state of affairs. Suddenly there is a sense that, for all his resumes of literary triumphs to date, Higgins is some way from happy with what he perceives as his status in the world of letters.

 

I asked him whether he still practised law, and his reply again betokens a certain disenchantment with the way things pan out; "I stopped in '83. It wasn't a decision made by me, it was made for me. In Boston when they say you've quit practising law to write full time, then you have. Took me several years to figure this out! My writing enabled my competitors - of whom there are a good many and some of whom are almost as good as I am - to say that I'd quit practising law to write full time. So eventually I couldn't afford to keep the office running; I had set it up initially to deal with the vicissitudes of a writer‘s income and now it was eating up all of that writer's income. So I finally faced up to reality, it was costing me $65,000 to run the law office each year with a minimal library, very good secretarial help and a cheap office space. In the ten years I was in private practice I made money one year and broke even two." Ironically enough the success of his writing did not even bring him more clients; "The mafia was not interested in having me around. I think they believed that I would use what they told me in my capacity as a lawyer as the grist of a story."

 

"So did you?" I ask, curious.

 

"I never did that", he replies, outraged, "I never have done. It would be a breach of confidentiality and ethics."

 

The mafia, however, seem to place little faith in confidentiality and ethics as Higgins discovered; "Well I got a call one Friday afternoon from a gentleman who is a guest of the government over at Massachusetts Correctional Institution - Walpole as it was then called (it's now called Cedar Junction as people living in Walpole objected to it being called Walpole). He was to be tried for stabbing another guest, to death. And he allowed as to how he might need legal assistance, and I said that I would come over on the following Tuesday, his next visiting day. On Monday I got a call from him saying 'Don't come', cause he had gotten a call saying 'Not Higgins'. Now I suspect that this gentleman was connected to the Honoured Society. I suspect... I mean I know damn well he was!"

 

At this point Bob smartly executes a classic Higgins manoeuvre; the early exit from a restaurant table at which everyone had you figured to pick up the tab. Higgins barely puts up token resistance. As Bob leaves he sits back in his chair, and suddenly starts talking in a different voice to that used before. He seems taken over by a tremendous weariness. I have the unnerving sense that he doesn't give a damn who I am or why I'm there, he just has something he feels like telling somebody.

 

What happens next is that George. V. Higgins at forty-nine tells me he's had it with writing novels. The lukewarm reception for his latest novel Trust has been the final straw. "I think I've overstayed my welcome. I think its time for me to go. I don't like it particularly but I think its... necessary. Eddie Coyle appeared in 1972. Trust appeared in 1989. George V Higgins on writing appears in 1990 and so does Victories. The tone of the early reviews of Trust is that I've overstayed my welcome. I'm going to be bleeding from the head and ears before these things are over."

 

        "So I'm tired of it and I don't want to do it any more. And I don't need to. One kid comes out of college this May, one kid the following May and I've got the tuition money in the goddamned bank. I don't like the battering I've taken."

 

         "I have tried and tried and tried... I have had more success in your country than in my own. People want to be told stories and I have tried to explain, at what I'm sure is tedious length, that in my novels the characters are telling you the story. They do not understand. I am sick and tired of reviews that go 'of course there's no plot as usual but the dialogue is great'. It's as a friend of mine said when George Brett was still in his heyday with the Kansas City Chiefs, 'Ah well, George Brett hit 350 again this year and George Higgins still writes good dialogue. You guys should start a club'. I'm sick of it. Victories, which will be out next fall, is the last George V.Higgins novel."

 

Having met a man once for lunch it is difficult to know how much store to put by this kind of talk. Certainly, after the way he had talked earlier about how he became a writer it is hard to imagine him simply stopping: "I was an only child, I was a special child, I was the little prince, I assumed from an early age that I should command a room, I always have. I started writing when I was 15½ years old. I wrote a novel, it was awful. That's something I've realised since I've been teaching writing - most of us started young. And writing is great fun, it really is. The most fun there is, if you can make a living at this racket! Man, it's great!"

 

If he really does quit, and certainly the extent to which he has been patronised by serious literary critics over so many books would be enough to try anyone's patience, then it will be something like a tragedy. Higgins' trouble is that his work is not suited to a world that tries to split literature into the serious and the trashy. Serious writers write long difficult and occasional books - the new Eco or Rushdie  arrives with all the bombast of a 70s supergroup triple album -  while trashy writers write fast and, gasp, for money ; so what to make of Higgins, who maintains a rate of at least a book a year, writes in his version of the vernacular, uses no references to mediaeval lore, describes the lives of lowlifes liars and thieves, but neither patronises them nor puts them through rent-a-plot thriller contortions culminating in a shootout. So he's stranded - serious types thinks he writes crime fiction - with great dialogue of course - and thriller fans bemoan his lack of shoot-em-up plots.

 

All Higgins has done is to write a whole slew of great books at around one a year for the last twenty. He's written funny ,profane and violent novels like The Rat On Fire, Outlaws or the new book, Trust; downbeat books with quiet resonance like A Year Or So With Edgar and Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years; a couple of novels featuring a Boston maverick criminal lawyer called Jerry Kennedy ('maybe he's me if I'd never learned to write' says Higgins) which are the nearest he's come to simple entertainments; and also something like a masterpiece, a novel called A Choice Of Enemies. A Choice of Enemies is by some distance the most acute political novel I've read. Its central character is a Boston pol called Benny Morgan who is a monster of corruption, the epitome of the fatcat politico in a one-party democracy. The novel's triumph is to make you understand, even like, Benny Morgan; finally you are left with the awkward realisation that a man like him, a venal man of the people, has more life, and finally even more decency, than the self-righteous ideologues on either flank who engineer his downfall. Listen to what they say, watch what they do, then make your own mind up - this is the method which makes Higgins the most genuinely democratic of writers.

 

By now the coffee's getting cold and Higgins is indulging in a certain amount of timepiece gazing. So I figure, what the hell, and ask him about whether he's happy to be seen as a writer of crime fiction. With a kind of weary fury he replies; "I received a letter from a publisher calling me America's best crime novelist, I was going to say I bristled, I didn't. I ate up three yeards of the living room rug. I am not a crime novelist, a crime novelist writes novels about crime, I have never done that."

 

Well, I demur faintly, your books do, as often as not, have crimes in them, "I write novels with crimes in them, who didn't. Madame Flaubert committed the crime of adultery. I don't write crime novels. I would like the money. I just can't do it. I start to giggle."

 

So does he respect any writers of crime fiction? Not really, he cites fellow Bostonian Robert. B. Parker as being a rare beacon of literary merit. Which, as far as I'm concerned, can be excused as a viewpoint only by friendship overriding judgement. Still, I wonder what he makes of Elmore Leonard, with whom he's endlessly bracketed. Higgins remains stuck in maximum snootiness mode and simply comments that, " Leonard has told a number of reporters that he got it all from me. I regard that as extremely flattering."

 

As we're leaving I ask him about Hollywood, which made a remarkably good job - artistically if not commercially - of filming The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, but has never returned to his work since; "I thought Eddie Coyle was a darned good film. I thought Robert Mitchum would have gotten the Oscar he deserved, had he not been such an unpleasant person. I could have no quarrel with anyone who voted against him because he was such an unpleasant person, because he was. He was a pain in the ass. After that a second film was commissioned and I was asked to write the screenplay. I thought, 'Of course I can write a screenplay, I've written all these novels!' And I wrote it and it stunk." And that was that.

 

Back in the alley outside the Locke-Ober Cafe, free at last of the dread jacket and tie, Higgins says good-bye and heads south-west and I head north-east into the thick of historic Boston. Which is oldish and profoundly fails to engage my interest at all. Instead I head off to Boston Common to take advantage the unseasonablt good weather, doze off the effects of lunchtime drinking, and see if anybody wants to sell me any guns. Boston Common, if Higgins' books and the warnings in my Boston guide book are to be believed, having something of a reputation in that direction.

 

Nothing happened. As neither did it in the coffee shops of Harvard, the derelict bars of the Combat Zone, the hoodlum bars of the Italian North End, the Irish Bars of South Boston, the original Cheers Bar downtown or the regular bars on the way out to Brookline. Maybe it was happening in the black bars of Roxbury, most likely something was happening in the smoke-filled rooms preferred by the guys in the Locke-Ober Cafe. But for me nothing happened in the half-assed, half-European city of Boston. And when I left I was glad to be leaving.