Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Note On George V. Higgins's A Change Of Gravity


George, George why hast thou forsaken me?

George V. Higgins, that is.

As a lover of his early novels and a reader of most of what he's written, I was thrilled recently to have come across his last two novels, The Agent, which I read a few weeks ago, and his second last, A Change Of Gravity, which I just finished yesterday and that, I confess, I both had to force myself to finish and found myself more and more skipping over pages of distracting, having-nothing-to-do-with-anything conversation.

Garrulous, a word that can arguably be used for Higgins's writing, though I never did, is on the money for A Change Of Gravity. But buried within all the endless talk on talk on talk about subjects that go nowhere, don't advance anything, and confuse the hell out of me, are the core and spine of a brilliant novel about corrupt Massachusetts' local politics involving politicians, handlers, judges, cops, lawyers, some women involved with them, and the low and street life that flows through an obscure District Court. Buried within all the endless talk is some, not enough, vintage Higgins fictional talk. This good talk gets down to the bones of life as it's chiefly lived in this world, reveals character, advances the story, materially fills in the fictional world and compels attention. 

The last 60 pages or so of the 452 pages are full of exceptionally good talk, as the talk brings coherence through legal argument at a hearing to a mass of sprawling detail about a host of characters, their schemes, transactions, relationships and their lives. The coherence is nuanced too. We have it as seen through the prism of a legal argument that imposes a singular pattern on all the sprawling facts. But we needn't accept that pattern even as in its telling by way of the argument we better understand a more inclusive and fair minded version of the people and events accumulating in our minds as we read. And when the legal argument distorts what characters have done and why, we can see the distortion and judge it as that even while in virtue of the distortion we put better together the meaning of things.

I'd say the book's last 60 pages are as good as or better than anything I've read in Higgins, more dense, thematically rich and complex than the exciting literary tightness and lowlife authenticity of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle or The Digger's Game or Cogan's Trade (made into Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt as Cogan) or, jumping over A City On A Hill, The Judgment Of Deke Hunter.

Higgins's novels stretch to near breaking point the possibility of constructing worlds, showing characters in action and advancing a story almost entirely through retrospective dialogue. In A Change Of Gravity, despite the exceptional last 60 odd pages, the conversational waters have burst the damn and flooded the world. Too much is under conversational water. Too little hasn't drowned or been submerged in all the distracting talk. Higgins here has lost his literary grip, the iron discipline of the earlier novels gone, the spare authentic perfection of them now lost in a maze of a building-on-itself irrelevancy that wants to give depth and breadth to the fictional world, but, rather, numbs, bemuses and, maybe worst of all literary sins, bores us.

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