Today I read At End Of Day, George V Higgins’ final novel. At its simplest, this is a story of two Boston gangsters, conspiring with members of the FBI to put other criminals in jail while continuing their own operations. Like other Higgins novels I’ve read, that bare synopsis does it no justice; there’s a rich web of criminality described within, and Higgins’ strongest suit is the dialogue, pages and pages of often obscure discussions between people with thick Boston accents (sorry, BAHSTAAAN accents).
There seems to be a fairly clear parallel between Arthur McKeach, one of the two gangsters, and Whitey Bulger, (apparently unarrestable) Boston crimelord and FBI informant, and inspiration (along with Infernal Affairs) for the film The Departed. I’m not sure if Whitey Bulger’s career was public knowledge in the late Nineties, or if Higgins was drawing on his lawyerly experience to conjure up a similar character. But it has the whiff of truth around it.
Never mind whether these are real people or not, the dialogue is, first and foremost, what you read these novels for.
It was therefore quite strange when I began At End Of Day to find little dialogue in the early chapters. Instead, there was often interminable description of offices and shops. You don’t read Higgins for passages explaining the position of doorways leading off a mezzanine, you are looking for passages thick with obscure menace and confusing overuse of pronouns: "he’s going to have to say it’s ok that he takes the hit on him" and so on.
I wondered if this was intended to make me reevaluate myself. Should I feel guilty for being bored by descriptions of interiors, because I want the author to rush more quickly to a man being threatened, and then savagely beaten? How does that reflect on me? There are few acts of violence in the novel (a graphically broken jaw, and later a shooting that is over in a couple of paragraphs) but it was never really the violence that was the draw, so much as the talking before and after it.
Midway in the novel, one character explains to another why he’s signed up for the police force, because it won’t be
[blockquote]something where I’m gonna get up every mornin’ the rest of my fuckin’ life, sayin’, "What am I gonna do today? Oh yeah, I forgot. The same thing I did yesterday. I really do wish I was dead."[/blockquote]
and you wonder if this was a message from Higgins, perhaps an attack on being a lawyer when he wished he’d always been a novelist. But it’s a bad idea to try to assign motivation based on a single passage in a book.
There are quite a few different grotesques in this book, not least the drug-scam running paraplegic disc jockey. As he explains to somebody else, he may have lost the use of his legs in Vietnam, but that wasn’t a ‘legitimate’ war wound; he fell off the back of a stage while it was being assembled, before the troops were being entertained – hardly the injury you’d expect for a war hero. The deceit is layered thickly, nobody is who people think they are.
In the end, McKeach is the only one to have an event described from two different perspectives; at the same time, he’s the least dimensional character, the one viewed by others as simply terrifyingly, unstoppably evil – and so you wonder if he’s any more or less truthful than the rest, or just another deceitful ghost.
The book starts slowly, wraps up too quickly at the end for my preference, though a lot is packed in. There’s justice for some people at the end, a satisfyingly large number of loose ends left flapping, and life carries on, bad people keep being bad, but do at least talk about it.