George V. Higgins – The Life And Writings

I don’t think I’ve read any cheerful biographies this year, tthoughat least this one didn’t make me weep. On my way to Bangkok today, I finished reading the biography of George V. Higgins, the "Balzac of Boston"; a man who died early, after a frustrating life filled with self-sabotage. Rather, I thought, like B.S. Johnson, whose 2004 biography, Like A Fiery Elephant, also made the case for early success damning an author to an ignominious end.

The methods of destruction were different, but whether one drank himself to death or took his life "in the Roman way" their lives were curtailed. Higgins found himself pigeonholed by the books that made his name early on, addicted himself to drink and a luxurious lifestyle, and alienated those around him by telling them how great he was, again and again.

He still did great work, and one of the frustrations of Higgins’s biography is that it’s hard to find the books he wrote – I assume because he was on such poor terms with his publishers, that has formed some sort of impediment to keeping them in print. Now I scour secondhand shops for his later works.

Reading Higgins’s complaints about the modern world and political correctness means I have to revise my opinion of his work. The defence that he was just recording the sexist, racist mores of his time is weakened when he wrote to his friends complaining about the same things that characters in his books complain about. Yes, you can take a structuralist view to this and assume the reader is more important than the writer’s motives, but it’s a bit of a hard reach.

What else did I learn? Higgins drank a hell of a lot, and fell over often enough and hard enough to knock himself out. He was something of a bullshit artist, relying on intelligence over careful application, and he was a fellow of great ability. He also had a pained relationship with his wife and children (his daughter is described as "fat" several times by his biographer, which feels a little uncalled-for) and he was, at times, more famous in the UK than his own country.

Now, less able after reading this to separate the man from his work, I still want to read the rest of the thirty-something books he wrote. But something more cheerful first, please.

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