Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cogan's Trade by George V.Higgins

Here's another American book, but one I'm reading thanks to a pair of European authors.

Cogan's Trade is George V. Higgins' third novel, following The Friends of Eddie Coyle by four years. Like that venerated classic, Cogan's Trade is almost all dialogue as it begins, punctuated by brief descriptions to establish a scene.  I realized a few chapters into this book what a brave move this was on Higgins' part. Write chapters and chapters of dialogue, with little or no intervening description, and you'd better be damned sure that dialogue can hold the reader's attention. How much of the dialogue you come across in your reading is that good?

So far, it works. So, who are those European authors? Garbhan Downey and Bill James. Downey offered some thoughtful replies to critical comments I posted about The Friends of Eddie Coyle a few years ago. Among other things, he expanded my awareness of Higgins' work beyond that one book, which is all I had known of Higgins before.

The other is Bill James. My post this week about James' new novel, Vacuum, took me back to my 2009 interview with James, which included his declaration that
"I’ve said it boringly often, but the one book that influenced me above all was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins, for its dialogue and its subtle treatment of the fink situation."
***
Here's a list of Higgins' novels -- more than twenty, a surprisingly long bibliography for an author who died youngish and is so widely known for his just one book, and that his first.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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19 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

Higgins might be known for two books shortly. A movie version of Cogan's Trade should be in cinemas in the next few weeks, with Brad Pitt as Cogan. I wonder what the screenwriter has done with what someone has called Higgins' monsoon of dialogue. Probably reduced it to a drizzle.

I hope Pitt's Boston accent is better than his Irish one.

January 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm about two-thirds of the way into Cogan's Trade, and I'd call it more a tsunami of dialogue punctuated so far by two brief action scenes (the hold-up of a card game, and a beating). Another character recounts a long, incident-filled dog-smuggling trip. I would be shocked to see that trip male it to the screen.

But isn't it surprising the degree to which Higgins' reputation rests on one book, and his first, at that? Garbhan Downey recommended Higgins' Kennedy series, some of which I think are soon to be rereleased. Between that and the movie, perhaps a Higgins renaissance is at hand.

Maybe I'm being too much the snob, but I find that work so driven by dialogue requires a bit of extra concentration on the reader's part (that is, on my part). So I respect publishers for bringing such books back on the market.

January 19, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

But isn't it surprising the degree to which Higgins' reputation rests on one book, and his first, at that?

Joseph Heller used to be asked why he had never written anything as good as Catch-22 again. And his response invariably was: Who has? Call that Catch-18. Higgins could reasonlbly claim the same.

I find that work so driven by dialogue requires a bit of extra concentration on the reader's part

I haven't read the book but I have read the opening pages on Amazon. There's a short passage where a character describes his experience as a tunnel rat in Vietnam. I like the fact that the passage does not use words like 'Vietnam', 'war', 'rat', 'US', 'army'. The passage does mention tunnels and dinks and begins with the line: when I was working for my Uncle. It is extremely economical and expects that the reader will be able to infer all that is left out. In that example, at least, it works, although I was three or four sentences into the passage before I figured out that Uncle was Uncle Sam. (I just rewatched the movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle and he uses Uncle for Uncle Sam a lot).

Reading the dialogue at the start of Cogan's Trade I couldn't help but think of early Quentin Tarantino movies where the gangster characters amusingly discuss cheeseburgers and Madonna and the state of the nation in between episodes of armed robbery and multiple homicide. Higgins was there long before Tarantino.

January 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, one difference between Higgine and Heller in that respect might be that one commenter on my my Friends of Eddie Coyle post conceded that my quibbles might be justified and suggested that some of Higgins' other books, previously unknown to me, might be better. That commenter was Irish and therefore full of good sense.

Your observation about the opening pages of Cogan's Trade are astute. They're another way of saying that the characters talk the way people talk. That is, they don't pepper their dialogue with chapter headings. And, yes, that method of writing dialogue means it might take a reader a few pages to figure out what;s going on, the way it might take an eavesdropper a few minutes to pick up the thread when he drops into the middle of a conversation.

January 19, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

That commenter was Irish and therefore full of good sense.

I like that, Peter. Ah, but how to rate you for saying it: silver-tongued devil or lying bastard? The jury is out.

Higgins doesn't seem to have been able to do anything else except write dialogue. That was his particular talent and he frequently overdid it. Reading it, you find yourself asking where does dialogue end and monologue begin and what exactly is the difference between a monologue and a soliloquy or is there any difference at all. Not really the kind of questions you want to be asking yourself in the middle of a crime novel.

Leave out the parts readers tend to skip, Elmore Leonard says. In the one of Higgins' later books that I read those monologues were very skippable.

For all that, Higgins did something worthwhile and possibly did it first. That's not too shabby.

January 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I complained about a long monologue and about a dated message in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but I'd never want to hold an author to account for a first novel, particularly when so many followed.

Some authors whose works I have read and enjoyed are among those who pay tribute to The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Bill James, Charlie Stella, Garbhan Downey (the sensible Irishman I mentioned), and that says much about how the book must have struck readers when it first appeared. Perhaps Higgins' technique are so taken for granted now that it's hard for readers to appreciate how innovative he was.

January 19, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Did you notice a Higgins influence on Bill James's dialoge, Peter? If it was there it passed me by. But you've read a lot more James than I have. Perhaps, you noticed something that this not very sensible Irishman didn't.

January 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd read a lot of James before I read any Higgins, and I've never thought while reading Higgins, "Aha! So this is where James got it!" But I have to trust the man himself. If he says Higgins influenced him, I have to believe it. He also mentioned the thematic influence. I don't remember if The Friends of Eddie Coyle has informants in it, but it certainly chronicles low lives, and that may be what really influenced James. I'd have to know a lot more than I do about crime fiction from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s before I could presume to assess that influence.

January 19, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I haven't read any Higgins, but the dialogue-heavy text sounds brilliant. I love reading plays by good playwrights (as opposed to the ones that cheat and give the maid a bunch of narration: "The master certainly is grumpy ever since his fiance called off the wedding on account of her sick uncle.") Harold Pinter. Amazing what he could do with lines of dialogue, and he never spoon-fed anything.

January 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, it's brilliant, all right. I did find myself growing a bit impatient with some of the characters' verbal tics toward the end of Cogan's Trade, though.

January 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'm not sure any of Cogan's Trade is skippable, but, as I mentioned in the domment above, some of the verbal tics and habits grew irritating.

One of these was the fragment "is all," as in: "He's just expensive, is all." "You could just save me a lot of time, is all." "I'm just a guy, is all. I never been in here before in my life"

Another is characters' tendency to interrupt themselves midsentence and repeat in a different form what they've just said before going on, something like "He's going to have to-- The thing is, he needs to do the damn job himself this time."

I suppose all this captures the cadences and quirks and hesitations of real speech, but listening to real speech for give, six, eight, ten, or however many hours it takes to read a novel can give one an earnest desire to take a break.

January 20, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I think I might be able to cope with 'is all'. It's brief, at least. The Dublin equivalent is 'yon know what I mean'. Some Dubliners can't go more than a couple of sentences without using that phrase, you know what I mean.

Someone once said human beings can't stand too much reality. Given the lousy verbal tics that are out there, who can blame them? The great thing about fiction is that when it's done right it leaves out the boring bits.

Incidentally, can you see Brad Pitt as a heavy. I'm struggling with that idea. Then again I would never have suspected that Michael Caine would have been just right as Jack Carter.

January 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, you'd probably be able to cope with, and perhaps even relish, the verbal tics in isolation. But 300 pages of the stuff is-- I'm saying twenty-five chapters can be a bit much, is all.

In any case, Higgins immersed his writing thoroughly in dialogue that's a convincing simulation of the real thing. That's a lot better -- and a hell of a lot less annpying -- than writers who sprinkle their dialogue with "I mean" and think that that makes it gritty and realistic.

I've seen Brad Pitt as an illegal fighter in Snatch, a heist man in Ocean's Eleven, and a killer cop in Seven, so yeah, I could see as a heavy, if not Higgins' particular heavy.

January 20, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Ah, you're just some Canadian putz, is all, you know what I mean?

I hope they leave those 'is alls' out of the movie.

In Brad Pitt's ongoing efforts to singlehandedly raise (hope you like the split infinitive) New Orleans from the ashes or whatever it is it was buried in, he chose to have Cogan's Trade filmed there. I'm not sure, is all, if they've changed the setting but if they think they can pass off New Oreleans as Boston, all I'm sayin is that's a bad fucken idea, is all.

Yes, those 'is alls' can get very old, very quickly.

January 20, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Incidentally, Peter, where does that Boston 'is all' come from. To my ear, at least, it doesn't sound Irish or English. Is it the German for 'that's all': das ist alles?

January 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, a move to New Orleans would solve any problems the novel's dialogue might present. No one has to worry any longer about sounding properly and grittily Bostonian. We can, however, tremble at the prospect of two hours of godawful overdone Southern accents -- y'alls instead of is alls.

January 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure "is all" is especially Bostonian. It may be a general working-class argot that crosses geographic lines. A friend from Massachusetts when I lived there was the first person I can remember says "all's," as in "All's I'm saying is, we gotta lose this guy."

January 20, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Some Dubliners can't go more than a couple of sentences without using that phrase, you know what I mean."
...pronounced, 'knowharrImean'

January 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll keep my ears open next time. My two short trips to Dublin, I heard what I'd been trained to hear from books: a few shites, an on the piss or two ...

January 20, 2012  

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