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Book Review / Fiction

Driving an Old Political Machine and Riding for a Fall

A CHANGE OF GRAVITY by George V. Higgins; Henry Holt; $25, 448 pages

September 24, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For readers who are stumbling across George V. Higgins for the first time, and for those who have read his 27 previous books, beginning with "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" in 1972, this novel offers the same rewards and problems.

Higgins hasn't lost his famous ear for dialogue. Nor has the former state and federal prosecutor forgotten all he knows about the labyrinthine workings of Massachusetts' legal, criminal and political worlds.

But "A Change of Gravity" is a bloated, self-indulgent book, often sloppily written and twice as long as it needs to be. It has complex characters, but they ramble on for pages at a time, seemingly just so Higgins can prove he has their voices down pat. It has a timely and interesting plot that trickles through globs of narrative fat as slowly as blood through the arteries of a person with terminal heart disease.

In short, it's the product of an author and a publisher who figure they no longer have anything to prove. Success is assured; Higgins' fans will buy anything he writes. But it's hard to imagine this novel winning him many converts.

Even the virtues of "A Change of Gravity" work against it. For a would-be popular novel, it has an unusually subtle and philosophical theme--the shift in political mores since the 1960s that has turned sexual peccadilloes and good-ol'-boy deal making from perks of the game into prosecutable sins.

Higgins' heroes--Dan Hilliard, a former Massachusetts state legislator, now a college president, and his former campaign manager, Ambrose Merrion, who wields behind-the-scenes power as a court official--are caught in a time warp. They consider themselves good guys who have bent the law for worthy causes, been loyal to their friends and not profited unduly.

"All you and I've been trynah do, all these years, the things we ever done, it's always come down to steppin' in and takin' care of other people," Merrion tells Hilliard, amazed that a federal prosecutor wants to put them in jail. "Our job was to make sure the government picked up the slack. That's why the damned jobs exist; that's what they're for. You always take care of your own."

They are talking in the bar of the Grey Hills Country Club, a snooty enclave they had managed to join when it expanded its membership to meet a financial crisis. Hilliard got the cost of his admission from Merrion, who had inherited a share in a trust fund from a friend. True, the fund, controlled by associates of both Merrion and Hilliard, had once been dirty money--kickbacks for construction contracts awarded decades ago. But can they be blamed for that?

The prosecutor thinks so. In his puritanical eyes, the Grey Hills memberships are the outward proof of hidden, long-term corruption. He offers Merrion immunity to testify against his friend--and threatens him with imprisonment if he doesn't.

"You've got this disdain for the whole process," Merrion's girlfriend complains when he describes how he and the judges he works for try to help certain criminal defendants by shelving the cases against them in return for promises to behave. "The law's what you want the law to be, and never mind what it says."

Merrion's girlfriend, as it happens, was also a friend of Hilliard's wife at a time when Hilliard's womanizing had become too blatant to ignore. She had influenced the wife to divorce him in a scandal that ended Hilliard's political career.

Higgins allows the critics their say, but his sympathies clearly lie with Hilliard and Merrion. To defend them, though, he has to show in detail the context in which they have lived and acted--a reason, if not an excuse, for the plodding pace of his story. And, in the same spirit of realism, he has to deny the reader a feel-good resolution.

This wouldn't be so bad if Higgins' prose were as sophisticated as his view of human nature. But whenever the dialogue stops, he gives us sentences like this:

"Shortly after 9:30 that Saturday evening in August Merrion's beeper went off while he sat cramped in a wicker chair too small for him in the now-glass-enclosed sunporch of the house in Canterbury where he had grown up, watching a taped rerun of final night of a big dog show that had taken place six months or so earlier in Madison Square Garden in New York, trying idly once more to think of some way he could have a dog again without complicating his life beyond endurance, knowing that there was none."

Hundreds of sentences like this. It's writing that, much like the political machine Hilliard and Merrion represent, has gone flabby from lack of challenge and is riding for a fall.

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