19 December, 2013

You know you're going to get burnt hanging out with a guy named "Digger"

Over the past few months, George V. Higgins has become something of a hero of mine. His books, like Donald "Richard "Insert Game of Thrones Joke Here" Stark" Westlake*, have a the apperance of being fascile. They seem to write books that just happen. They aren't labored over and they aren't pulled out of the author by pliers. They unfold, naturally, invisibly, and, more importantly, as worthy and interesting works of art. For a guy that wants to get paid to write that is a very appealing concept.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a perfect crime book and while The Digger's Game is a fine book, it doesn't quite reach the heights of Higgins' premiere novel. But maybe that's just because I can imagine Robert Mitchum delivering dialogue in the case of Eddie Coyle. Nobody can compete with that kind of talent.

Part of me suspects that it was written before The Friends of Eddie Coyle  and only came to be published after Higgins' initial success. As I understand this Higgins' career, that's entirely possible. It's also encouraging. The Digger's Game doesn't move as blithely as Higgins' first (published) novel, but it does share a lot of its positive qualities. There is enough shared blood to make Higgins' sophomore novel worth reading.

The first half of the book drags through the titular Digger's problems with, well, everyone, and his bookie's own set of problems. That goes on for a while. There's no real shape to it and its shapelessness doesn't have the same appealing qualities that The Friends of Eddie Coyle or the film Killing Them Softly has. When the novel kicks into high gear and we do get the crusty, complicated bits that made Eddie Coyle so much fun. The world of the entry-level criminal in Boston is an interesting one and The Digger's Game is best when it gets into all that.

After all, who doesn't like a couple of fat drunks talking about stealing fur coats in a dingy bar? Isn't that what we show up to this sort of thing for? Higgins' skill with dialogue is on full display in every scene and it's best when the dialogue is in service of the story at hand. . . or in service of everything else but the story, as many of his characters seem to be worrying about everything but the main story.

In one scene the Digger is more interested in commenting on a baseball game on the TV than he is with negotiating with his loan shark. It's a great detail and even without the rest of the scene, we know exactly where these two characters stand. It's the type of detail I'd like to rip-off. It's the type of detail that shows that, beyond dialogue, Higgins is quite the writer.

In George Higgins' world, and I imagine in the real world, organized crime is more a game of scraping by and bullshitting than it is one of high living and elaborate gunfights. The men of his world live at ground level and they're struggling to stay there. It's closer to my world than The Godfather is. Most of the people I spend time with are at the bottom wrung and, like the Digger, the few people I do know that live on a plinth, I find to be confounding.

The Digger's Game is a book well worth reading and, despite the cover's insistance, it has never been made into a movie. Someone should get on that.Hey, Affleck. Either one of you. Get in on this one. It might get you another Oscar. Because people love this shit.

*Darwyn Cooke just released his adaptation of the Stark novel Slayground, which details Parker's life and death struggle against mobsters in an amusement park after dark. This exists and some people still read bullshit about