A Friend of George V. Higgins

I recently finished a book on boxing written by an author who was lamely striving to channel Nick Tosches, so it was refreshing to see a reminder yesterday that the original is still at it. In a guest post at the blog of Mulholland Books, a new imprint of Little, Brown dedicated to suspense fiction, Tosches considers some of the distinctions between genre and literary fiction. A worn-out theme to be sure, but he’s entertainingly open about his experiences reading two of the crime novelists who, as they say, transcend the genre: Patricia Highsmith and George V. Higgins.

I confess that Higgins is pretty much unknown to me—I haven’t even seen the film version of his bestselling 1972 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which was republished earlier this year. (Sarah Weinman ran down some of the coverage of the reissue; the University of South Carolina, where Higgins’ archives are kept, has an interesting PDF file that discusses the author’s busy life as a novelist, columnist, and defense attorney.) For Tosches, the book “was the most powerful illumination of what one could achieve by going against the whole jive-ass in-the-American-grain line of shit about literature, the first and hardest prison an American writer must break out of. It was a freeing inspiration of the sort that I had not experienced since I read Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn when I was a teenager.”

Tosches digs up some old letters he received from Higgins, including a funny one in response to a question about where he acquired his style:

“I invented my style; I am a fucking genius,” he wrote. He ended the letter: “This is a long way of saying that I have no better idea about the origin of what I do than you do. Perhaps I simply have a dirty mind and the good fortune to live in a generation that talks and does dirty.”

I’m willing to take time to find out if Higgins is indeed the fucking genius he makes himself out to be, though more on Tosches’ recommendation than Higgins’. And, since I’m willing to follow Tosches pretty much any where he points me, I’m also curious about Nightmare Alley, a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that was recently reissued by New York Review Books, with an introduction by Tosches—who, according to a Baltimore Sun article on the book, is so impressed with Nightmare Alley he’s spent ten years off and on trying to find out whatever he can about the author. Can’t ask for much more in an endorsement.

2 thoughts on “A Friend of George V. Higgins

  1. Tosches can go more over-the-top than most ardent admirers of authors, but he’s dead on about NIGHTMARE ALLEY, which is kind of like a pure dose of hell contained between two covers. The story arc is just about perfect, and very symmetrical structure-wise, and Gresham clearly lived a simulacrum of the life he describes in the book. (And of course, later on, losing his wife to C.S. Lewis didn’t help matters.)

  2. The influence and importance of Higgins on English language popular fiction cannot be overestimated. He seems to have more or less personally invented the use (at least in English) of narrative based on dialogue. All his most important books except for “Eddie Coyle” are out of print now, but definitely deserve re-issue.

    In his introduction to the re-issue of “Eddie Coyle” Elmore Leonard credits Higgins with putting him on the track of his later successes.

    His early works (not counting the 17 unpublished and destroyed books that proceded “Coyle”) “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Digger’s Game,” “Cogan’s Trade,” and “The Rat on Fire,” all set in the Boston underworld, are outstanding. Higgins’ later efforts featuring his alter-ego lawyer Jerry Kennedy or set in the world of politics are not quite as good, but Higgins appears to have decided that he had played out the vein of underworld novels.

    If you haven’t read “Coyle,” “Digger,” “Cogan,” and “Rat” do so at your earliest convenience. “Coyle” is widely available as a re-issue. The others can be found in some libraries or as used books.

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