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AT END OF DAY
By George V. Higgins
Harcourt, 2000, $24 (HC, 383pp)
Reviewed by Anthony Neil Smith
I didn't catch on to George V. Higgins until very recently, when a friend of mine praised his first novel, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. That was written thirty years ago, and since then, Higgins stayed the course writing book after book built on his unique style, one that relied on dialogue and the sound of the language to tell stories. In many cases, there would be pages and pages of one character speaking to another, telling a story. It was like overhearing a conversation in a restaurant: you don't get it at first, but then you fill in the blanks on your own and ride with it. I had tried a few times before to read his work, but it wasn't until my friend's suggestion that I "heard" how to read the books, much like that restaurant conversation: you find the rhythm, and you follow it. Sadly, Higgins died last year from a heart attack, but he left behind a final work, AT END OF DAY.
Again, the story is told through conversations and soliloquies. Not much is explained except what a character wishes to reveal. The descriptions ground us, but what matters are the stories. The dialogue mimics the rhythms of everyday speech in Massachusetts, an accent Higgins knew fondly. This book looks at, ironically, the aging of the organized criminal underground, and also at how the world has changed. Older criminals and cops bemoan the young guns. Nothing makes sense anymore, and the law is powerless to stop it. In Higgins's world, crime is a part of these characters' lives much like any job is for the average citizen. He is more interested in constructing lives than giving a stereotype something to do. And these are interesting characters, each trying to do the "right" thing, but what is right for one is wrong for another.
It is a little unfair to trace a storyline through a Higgins novel. It is better to simply immerse yourself in the world he's created, learn how to listen to the voices of the characters, and let the wave take you. I read recently that Higgns is one of those writers who, although a giant in the crime field, actually isn't copied very much because no one else could make it work. Now that he's no longer around to give us more, I hope young crime writers will dig into his legacy and learn how he did this. Take it, use it, let it evolve, and keep that spirit alive in the genre. Read the first one, read AT END OF DAY, and then the others in-between.
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