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The Higgins Hallmark Is Not All Talk : Lawyer-Author Tries a Change of Style

September 17, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — The restaurant is dark, with heavy wood paneling, stained glass windows, a Renaissance-type painted ceiling. The chairs are tooled leather, trimmed with big brass brads; so are the round seats at the long, elaborately carved bar.

Locke-Ober might as soon be a men's club as a restaurant, and in fact not until 1970 were women encouraged to frequent the lunch scene at this 111-year-old Boston landmark. Even now, on this sunny summer Tuesday, only three women are in the crowded main dining room.

Is that why it looks so much like a scene from a novel by George V. Higgins? Because men in dark suits are drinking beers with lunches of lamb chops or lobster or roast loin of beef? Because mostly they are lawyers, fresh from their latest courtroom kills? Because their violence is subtle, verbal--but always deadly accurate? Because like Higgins' characters, they talk a lot: noisily, heartily, hungrily?

Talk. It is the Higgins hallmark. Entire books are filled with conversation, with only the barest descriptions linking the scenes and characters. All this palaver makes Higgins' characters seem outrageously real. They are people, men and women, who have come out of courtrooms and newsrooms and bedrooms, not merely out of some writer's word processor.

"What dialogue!" Norman Mailer proclaimed when the first of Higgins' 15 books, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," appeared 14 years ago. Said Melvin Maddocks of Life, assessing Higgins' newest novel, "Impostors": "He writes dialogue so authentic it spits."

So who are all these people in Higgins' books? Are they clients, opponents, cohorts from Higgins' 20-odd years as a criminal lawyer? Story subjects from his days as a reporter for the Providence Journal and the Associated Press? Ghosts from Higgins' stint writing about Watergate for the Atlantic?

Smoking a cigarette, sipping red wine, waiting for his favorite lunch of roast beef hash, Higgins laughed broadly. It is a great earthquake of a sound, a seismographic rumble. Colleagues in his old law firm came to love and hate that laugh, a noise that roared out of Higgins so frequently as his characters took life on his page.

Surprising Dialogue

"I never know what they're going to say next," Higgins said, now not laughing at all. "The line that I have used on hundreds of occasions is that they burned Joan of Arc for saying this, but I hear them, I hear the voices, and I let them go. I can see them. Whenever I'm working on a novel, I have a whole community in there with me.

"It used to be very unsettling for other people in the office when I wrote my books there," Higgins said, "because I'd be in there all alone, cackling and howling away.

"I don't know how it happens," he said. "I can't explain it. I'm glad it does, though."

Listening in on their antics, verbal and otherwise, Higgins is the first to be amazed by what his characters say and do. "I wrote 'The Rat on Fire' in my office," Higgins said. The creative cacophony was such that "my secretary would go and shut my door. When Leo Proctor came home drunk and finally fell off the chair and caught on fire, I had hysterics. I didn't know he was going to do that. I had no idea that chair was there.

"I didn't know Eddie Coyle's name until I typed it," Higgins said. "And it was about the third chapter: 'He was a stocky man.' "

Sometimes, real life does intervene. "When I wrote 'Penance for Jerry Kennedy,' " Higgins remembered, "it started when the dog did something stupid out in the back yard. We have a golden retriever, and they have a monopoly on stupidity. The dog hides from lightning in the laundry basket. This is an improvement. She used to hide next to the toilet: seek out water in a lightning storm.

"Well the dog did some damned fool thing. We had just gotten back from Paris, and in Paris, everybody takes his dog everywhere. And that's what the problem is with the American judicial system: We don't bring our dogs.

A Dogged Theory

"Look, I'm serious. Things would proceed a lot more swiftly if everybody brought his dog, and you had to take the dog out for a walk, because you can't keep a dog in the courtroom for six hours while nothing's going on, the dog has to go out and relieve himself. So we should all bring our dogs to court. And it was such a good idea that I went in and started writing, thus interrupting a nonfiction project, which was even then overdue."

The son of two teachers, Higgins grew up in Brockton, Mass., in a house filled with books and a time of no television. Mom read "cheap detective novels"; Dad favored Shakespeare and the Atlantic. No star at softball, their only son read everything he could find.

But his literary epiphany took place when he came upon a two-installment short story by someone called Ernest Hemingway in Field & Stream magazine.

"It was galvanizing," Higgins said. "It was absolutely fantastic to me to think that you could do this, you could write like that and somebody would pay for it and print it.

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