Higgins' 'Gravity' - will friends recoil?

October 26, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,sun staff

"A Change of Gravity," by George V. Higgins. Henry Holt. 448 pages. $25.

I have a friend who doesn't like chocolate. Now that I've read a George V. Higgins' novel, I think I finally know how he feels. I haven't experienced this kind of isolation and cross-grainedness with this world since some 36-year-old woman died in a car accident in a Paris tunnel over the Labor Day weekend.

"A Change of Gravity" is Higgins' 28th book, yet his first - "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" - remains his best-known. He is famous for his dialogue. Time called him the "man with the golden ear" and his work has been compared to playwright David Mamet's. He tackles big complicated subjects with equal parts ambition and ambiguity.

Having heard about all this, I was prepared for one of those swooning fits that I have when I come late to a much-admired writer. Instead, I kept having snoozing fits, the book falling from my hands and crashing to the floor. Literally - I would find it lodged between bed and bureau each morning.

Admittedly, I never recovered from the first three pages, in which judge sits in her chambers and remembers a monologue on nature vs. nurture that she delivered to a reporter from the Springfield Union News.

Now I understand Higgins is famous for these monologues, but do his characters actually replay their own long-winded thoughts in their minds two years after the fact? Are readers to assume the newspaper printed this blather in full, or that U.S. District Judge Barrie Foote is so self-impressed she can remember every word she's ever spoken? The only part that rings golden is her after-the-fact assessment: "Do I really talk like that, say fatuous things like that, to people I don't know? Cripes, I sound like such a phony there."

But Judge Foote is not the central character here, although she sets the tone for the style of story-telling to follow. "A Change of Gravity" is about the relationship between two politicos -Danny Hilliard, a power in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and Ambrose Merrion, clerk of the court in Canterbury, Mass. Everything has been going just swell, but over 30-plus years of wheeling and dealing, the landscape beneath them has shifted. Or, as Higgins would have it, the laws of political gravity have changed.

Now this is a terrific setup. If only one could get to it. "A Change of Gravity" reads like a Scott Turow novel as rendered in the style George Plimpton has used for his biographies of Edie Sedgwick and Truman Capote. Character after character - interesting, full, well-drawn characters, it should be noted - shuffle on and deliver their trademark monologues. But logorrhea, even when golden, is wearing.

The temptation is to compare Higgins to Theodore Dreiser, he makes a reader work so hard for the pleasures here. But I still prefer Dreiser, if only because I'm more willing to expend the effort for his insights into the human heart. But you know what? I think I'm still going to check out a copy of "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

Laura Lippman is a feature writer for The Sun. She write frequently about publishing. Her second novel, "Charm City," was published this fall by Avon Books.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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