Thursday, January 22, 2015

The ABCs Of Massachusetts Politics- George V. Higgins’ A Choice Of Enemies 

Book Review 

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman 

A Choice Of Enemies, George V. Higgins, 1984

A lot of times when an author “speaks” to me I tend to go on a rampage going through the litany of whatever he or she has written. That is the case of late with the late Boston novelist an dprofessor George V. Higgins whose work is a special case (like Dennis Lehane of late) since most of the locales and most of the types who populate his novels are very familiar, maybe too familiar to me almost from childhood. Too familiar from the robber baron corner boys turned gangsters who preyed on the edges of our working class neighborhoods to the “on the make” politicos mapping out their career paths from about their eighth year (in full disclosure I went some distance on that route until I realized that I had to try to live with myself most days and would have not been able to say that on most days on that path) to renegade priests trying to conceal their lusts under the collar to the copper who made life easy for the previously mentioned brethren. We were all mixed together down there at the dangerous base society, the grim place when the working poor hung with their outsized hungers and it is only happenstance that one goes one way and the other another.

The material in the book under review, A Choice Of Enemies, a handbook in the 1980s (and a quick look at the headlines on any given day confirms that in 2015) on the whys and wherefores of Massachusetts state and local politics falls under that category as well. Recently I wrote a review of another Higgins’ book, The Mandeville Talent, where I gave the genesis of my interest in the books written by Higgins and, indirectly, my take on the kind of novels that this very prolific writer had spot on, and other than were less so:      

“Hey, any friend of Eddie Coyle’s is a friend of mine. You know Eddie, right, the Cambridge-bred corner boy who got tied up with some guys who did some things, a little of this and that late at night, a little of this and that about giving guys the means to go rooty-toot-tooton their appointed chores, did some things that “Uncle” might take umbrage at and try to put a guy away for, for a nickel or a dime, maybe. And poor middle-aged sag Eddie did not want to do the time, no way, but also got caught up in something too big for him to handle. So you know Eddie Coyle, the guy who was found not looking too pretty one cop car morning in the back of a stolen Chevy in some back parking lot in some dead-drop bowling alley off Dorchester Avenue in Boston.

Actually now that I think about the matter I don’t know, never heard of, could not say word one about some guy, what was his name again, oh yeah, Eddie Coyle. And of course while a lot of ex-corner boys (Jack Slack’s bowling alleys in North Adamsville for me) knew plenty of guys exactly like benighted Eddie no one could actually know him since he was the fictional creation of the author under review, George V. Higgins, in his first and most famous crime novel, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle published in 1972 (and later adapted for the cinema starring Robert Mitchum as the stand-up guy of the title). But, see, Brother Higgins was a prolific writer and although many of his best works and pieces of righteous ear for “street” dialogue involved low-end, well, gangster types he wrote other crime-centered books where the “bad guys” were not front and center, did not in the final push get away with murder. Although in the book under review, The Mandeville Talent, it was a close thing, a very close thing.”      

And that comment about what Higgins had a master ear for and ability to put dialogue to paper about, the low-life drifters, grifters and midnight sifters of the Boston gangster world, applies as well here where he gives his take on the ways of Massachusetts tribal politics when nobody, or almost nobody is looking. The subject is almost more interesting and certainly more dastardly in real time than having to drift through a few hundred pages of the inner workings up on the Hill and out in the districts. 

Here is the big secret-Massachusetts politics is corrupt. No Higgins did not tip me to that hard fact, nor did some hard-hitting Boston Globe expose. The person who gave me the “skinny” when I was about eight or nine years old was my departed late sainted unworldly house-bound grandmother, Anna Riley, who knew that hard fact from when she was a girl told to her by her mother. And if kindly grandmothers are hip to the politics then almost everybody else is too. And that is the enduring weakness of writing several hundred pages about the corrupt graft state contracts, the tenuous political alliances that last for a minute, the momentary do-gooders who fade when the target falls (to be replaced by the next from hunger guy or gal) and those who try to get anything done without greasing the skids.

Naturally the best spot to see what is going on is to go to the State House and not to the Governor’s office as important as that front is but to the Speaker’s office where the real action goes down. Here Higgins gives us the Speaker Bernie and “fixer man” Frank show (there is always a fixer man behind the throne necessary to follow the bouncing ball). The ins and outs of how thing get done, or not done, up the Hill. Almost a manual like I said.   

Higgins has got it all there the graft and corruption but why after reading this one did I have a hankering to hear those low-life grifters, drifters and midnight sifters like the late Eddie Coyle talking their self-interested low whisper street talk and making do with their small hungers.

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