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

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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

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“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.

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“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

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“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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“So I went to the library to see if maybe this guy Hemingway had written anything else. He had.”

Ambitious First Novel

By age 15, Higgins was writing a novel of his own, his first. It was a nervy move, a bold assumption that he had something to say and that other people would want to read it. “It’s a very egocentric profession,” Higgins agreed. “The audacity of it all! Well that’s why I did it. I wanted to show off. I was an only child. I was expected to show off.”

He will not discuss the title--"I’m not going to tell you that. I destroyed it for a reason"--but will describe it as “an effort to transform into a modern novel the story of Cincinnatus, who dropped his plow and went to war. See, I was studying Latin at the time.”

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It was a lofty topic for a 15-year-old, Higgins concedes, and “it didn’t work very well. I was astonished that it wasn’t published.”

Sixteen years and several drawers full of rejection slips later, Higgins experienced equal bewilderment when a novel of his, “Eddie Coyle,” was at last accepted for publication. By then Higgins had tried out graduate school--"I went to Stanford to become a professor of English because you can’t make a living writing novels in the United States. Everybody knows that"--worked as a reporter and gone on to law school.

“I became a lawyer to try cases,” Higgins said. “I was covering these Mafia trials for the Associated Press in Springfield, and as far as I could see, the only people in western Massachusetts who were having more fun than I was were the trial lawyers, so I wanted to be a trial lawyer.”

Besides, Higgins said, “I knew. I knew I could never sell a book.”

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Discovered the Law

Higgins discovered he loved law. He represented G. Gordon Liddy, and once fired a client named Eldridge Cleaver. “I love trying cases,” Higgins said. “It’s fun. You can sweat through a summer suit in the wintertime trying a case, it’s so absorbing. It’s great stuff.”

But all the while he was writing, listening in on his voices, sometimes as long as 14 hours a day. “There was never any question that I would continue to do it, and I would never make any money.”

“Eddie Coyle” made him reconsider that assumption.

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“One of the reasons I will never need heroin, or any other drug,” Higgins said, “is because I have already had a bigger high. It was an awful night. It was in February of 1971, and it was snowing. I was living about 20 miles southeast of Boston, and the only way to get home was to go down the Southeast Expressway, which was jammed. And I got home and the mail was on the table and I was getting a good nagging for being late. For some surcease from that, I looked to the mail, and there was a gray envelope from Alfred A. Knopf.

“Keep in mind, ‘Eddie Coyle’ had been rejected twice. And I knew what the letter inside said: ‘Doesn’t meet our needs at the present time,’ yeah. And the letter from Knopf said ‘We would like to accept your novel, and we will pay you $2,000.’ Hell, I would have paid them $2,000 and I didn’t even have it. What a sleigh ride!”

A Change of Style

“Impostors,” Higgins’ latest novel, marks his switch to a new publisher, Henry Holt. It also encompasses elements that are new to the Higgins literary repertoire: sex, for one thing; a strong, likable female character for another. And “Impostors” has far more description than Higgins’ earlier works, a fact about which the author is still quite ambivalent.

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“I have tried to give more and more location,” he said. “But because I think it interferes with the pace of the narrative, I restrict it to those surroundings that the character controls. That way you should be able to elucidate something about the character by the way he or she chooses to decorate the surroundings. And I don’t know if I’ve gone too far or I haven’t gone far enough.”

Of course there is another novel brewing. But the substance of it remains known only to its creator. “I can only tell a story once,” Higgins said. “I either tell it orally or I tell it in print. I’m going to tell it in print.”

Higgins is 57 now, with a great grizzled beard and a penchant for wearing blazers with the dry cleaning tags still attached. Somewhat reluctantly, he has given up practicing law to write full time. Still, his success allows him to number himself among “200 people who can make a living in this country working full time as writers, and we are the luckiest people on Earth.”

“I’ve got two kids in private school,” Higgins said, “one who was recently heard to utter the word Princeton, and that sounds expensive to me, and this writing pays for it.

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“It’s astonishing,” Higgins said. “To have as much fun as I do, and to make money on it, this is astonishing. This is a blessing.”


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