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A Case of Overhearing

A City on a Hill By George V. Higgins Alfred Knopf, 256 pp., $7.95

By Richard Shepro

A FEW YEARS ago Boston-based public prosecutor (now private lawyer) George V. Higgins, building on his experience with the acute hearing of his inventive mind's car, wrote out The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a quick-paced, quick-waited, brutal and brutish novel about small-time men in the Boston underworld Critics praised it, the public bought it. Hollywood filmed it, and Higgins came close to repeating his success with two new crime novels in the next two years. All the while he denied being a crime novelist. "I don't write books about crime," he told me a few days after he finished writing this new novel on a then undisclosed topic. "I write books about people who happen to commit crimes." Teeth of the underworld's gears, people shown talking inside and outside their work, declaring whatever pops into their heads for Higgins's).

And now Higgins has shifted to--as he liked to say of the Nixontan criminals who appeared in his two Watergate articles for The Atlantic--"people who commit politics." Higgins focuses on Congressional aide Hank Cavanaugh, a peripheral figure to the bigger, surrounding story of the '76 Democratic pre-convention campaign. Higgins is telling a tale of action from the view of a man with little room to act, a man like Eddie Coyle and Jackie Cogan of the earlier novels. The crime novels never showed the big bosses; A City on a Hill never directly presents the man Cavanaugh's boss wants to make president. Keeping within his narrow limits, Higgins manages to smooth his way past the improbability of a second-term Cape-Cod congressman's launching a serious, self-confident ("get me a president, goddamit") drive to be kingmaker.

THE SPONTANEITY of his characters is important to Higgins; thus the feeling that they "happen to commit" their actions, or his statement two weeks ago on Chicago radio that he "wrote this book to find out what happened to the characters I introduced on page one." Suddenly Higgins is the American Simenon, starting from a set of tensions, writing with no end in sight--and writing at a deadly pace (ten days for the first draft of A City on a Hill, compared to the eleven days Simenon spends on slightly shorter books). His trick is that he writes almost nothing but dialogue. Long rambling, authentic-sounding conversations provide all the action in the entire book.

Higgins writes conversation better than he does anything else.. Descriptive sections of Eddie Coyle still his best book, could never stun readers the way the dialogue does. Even at its most clumsy Higgins's descriptive prose still serves as respite and counterpoint, amplifying the impact of his characters' talk. In his last two-books, on the other hand, there are few pages with anything but dialogue. Even indirect quotation is entirely abandoned: a clear sentence like the one beginning Eddie Coyle ("Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns,") is not allowed. Before long, Higgins loses control of A City on a Hill to those spontaneous bureaucrats he hears droning on in his cars.

Without doubt, the book has the unmistakeable sound of real people talking, but it never covers the range of emotion a book told only in dialogue needs. All the characters except one Chicago judge are blunt and direct in a way not all politicians and politicians lovers are--at least not all the time. Yes, diction varies. Tone varies, but not much. Even the White House transcripts showed greater lapses into sensitivity; Nixon suddenly at a loss for words, drifting off, "looking down the road, looking down the road as far as--you say your dad was good at looking down the road?" Rarely articulate but never at a loss for words, all the characters--whether they have anything to say or not--talk constantly in the sort of forceful tones Higgins manages gracefully when consulted at his law office.

This monotonous effect is nowhere more apparent than in the constant banter about sex. In the crime novels sex talk is crude but excited. Attitudes toward sex reveal much about motivations. In A City on a Hill there is more talk, less feeling. The talk is almost exotic--about fat Tijuana whores and Chinese baskets and a house in Brighton where you wash off with PhisoHex to stave off V.D. The sex that actually happens (we hear about it through more talk) is uniform, innocuous. No one is tender, no one is embarrassed to talk about how wet somebody's twat is or where are we going to fuck. As a monotone of one lifeless mood, it all rings true. But, one assumes, congressional aides have occasional feelings never seen in Higgins's book.

"I'M NOT INTERESTED in the sensitive musings of young people," Higgins told me. He wrote thousands of pages of "sensitive trash" before Eddie Coyle, he said, and he's overjoyed it's out of his system. With his wall of dialogue he can block all the passions he couldn't successfully reproduce on paper. Higgins knows how good his dialogue can sound, at its best; he knows too well, I think, because his skill at recording his special type of dialogue in his peculiar tones hinders his ambition to be a novelist of wider talents. The German poet Rilke warned one young poet that "he must always remain unconscious, unsuspecting of his best virtues, if he would not rob them of their ingenuousness and untouchedness!" Higgins seems to be filching his greatest talent.

Perhaps more crucial is the question of whether eavesdropping of this sort can illuminate any features of U.S. politics, aside from showing the obvious absence of both ideology and philosophy. The congressman tells Cavanaugh "we can't afford to spend the next three years discussing whether Nixon called Kleindeinst a cocksucker," and much of this book is on the same trivial level. Higgins says his job as novelist is to set down the factors and let the reader interpret--Higgins the journalist and lawyer interprets enough, he says. But the facts--as conversation--are hardly enough, any more than undisclosed White House tapes could suggest the full horror of the Indochina war. Apolitical James Joyce thought the artist should remain offstage, cleaning his fingernails. Higgins seems to want to go a giant step back, placing himself a mile away with a hard-boiled "Big Ear" parabolic receiver aimed at the action. His hearing deserves better.

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