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BOOK REVIEW

George V. Higgins at dusk

In the last novel before his death, he takes the outline of Whitey Bulger's case to craft a terrific, topical tale

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 5/07/2000


At End of Day
By George V. Higgins
Harcourt, 383 pp. $24.

In 1972, a 32-year-old assistant US attorney named George V. Higgins burst onto the literary scene with "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." This was his first novel accepted for publication, though it was about the 15th the young lawyer had written. The book became a bestseller, and it launched a series of more than 20 novels - most of which didn't become bestsellers. That was generally because Higgins declined to repeat himself or to relax into formula, even in the four books that formed a series about Jerry Kennedy, "the classiest sleazy criminal lawyer in Boston."

Ever industrious, Higgins had begun a fifth Kennedy book before he died, last November.

Because his later books never took off in the marketplace, it was easy to buy into the notion that Higgins had somehow "fallen off" from his early promise and accomplishment, though publicists and even some reviewers ritually greeted the appearance of a new Higgins novel as "a return to form." Even the publisher of the last novel Higgins completed, "At End of Day," maintains that the book represents "a step up, and back, to his earlier excellence."

"At End of Day" is a terrific and topical book that takes off from headlines - specifically, from the story of Whitey Bulger and the FBI's complicity with some members of the underworld. In a sense the novel represents a return to the criminal milieu of "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." But it isn't necessary to denigrate earlier Higgins novels in order to praise this one. The writer didn't have an easy life, and some of his books turned out better than others, but Higgins never wrote a bad book, or probably even a bad sentence. The same questions - of character, code, and principle - occupied him in whatever social or professional setting he found his people, when he would start eavesdropping on them and letting them spring surprises on themselves, each other, the reader - and probably their creator himself. There is never a dull moment in George V. Higgins.

In this last outing, Arthur F. McKeon, a.k.a. McKeach, and Nick Cistaro are gangsters, ruthless and careful, and they run their rackets out of a base in South Boston. Everyone knows them and what they're up to, and for more than 30 years they've gotten away with murder, as well as loan sharking, extortion, assault, bribery, gambling, drug-dealing, and just about everything else in their full-service operation. McKeach, we learn, "fixed horse races, prizefights, probably college basketball games, and at least one election each for seats on the Boston City Council and the Governor's Council. He stole union funds, diverting members' dues and embezzling their pension money. He corrupted public officials - tax assessors, cops on the beat, building inspectors, municipal liquor-licensing board inspectors, two state members of the Alcoholic Beverage Control, and a member of the state racing commission . . . and we're just getting warmed up here."

McKeach and Cistaro are not going quietly into their sunset years, but they have found it useful to form a private and mutually beneficial alliance with two FBI agents, Jack Farrier and Darren Stoat. The gangsters feed information about La Cosa Nostra to the FBI and settle some scores by betraying some of their own clients who have become more trouble than they're worth. The FBI, in turn, does not look too closely into the affairs of McKeach and Cistaro, and promises to be of whatever assistance it can if other agencies are closing in.

There is honor among thieves, but Higgins does nothing to romanticize them; they have their likable sides, but then they will lash out with terrifying violence. There is also corruption among the law enforcers - nothing serious, of course, just asking for an occasional help-me-out-here. The parallels between the criminal world and the world of respectability are connected like fault lines. But the ironies are not simple and predictable like circles around a stone dropped in a still pond; instead they ricochet, like an echo in a dark and looping cave.

The story, like all of Higgins's stories, is convoluted, even twisted, and most of it plays out offstage, like the action in Greek drama. And the story isn't really the point of the book; the point is the way the story darts into and out of the shadows of the mind, the way it develops and disappears in the conversations of the people who are telling it. Higgins's books are extremely stylized, but utterly realistic; poetic yet vernacularly down-to-earth; the epic struggles in them are entirely human. His books are rough, artful, and uncompromising.

Like most of them, "At End of Day" unfolds in a series of monologues by and conversations with some very dodgy people who are equally determined to find things out and give nothing away, by indirection to find directions out. The only way to read a Higgins novel is to listen to it, attentively. These people are trying to con each other; often they do not realize the extent to which they are conning themselves.

Most Higgins characters reveal themselves as they tell stories, which add up to the substance of the book. Some of the stories act like funhouse mirrors, distorting an event or exaggerating a truth by reflecting it from a crooked surface set at a different angle. Others seem genuinely irrelevant; they don't have to be there. But the things that don't have to be there constitute the quality and the character of a Higgins novel.

There's a cat in "At End of Day," for example, a cat named Mouser who prefers eating beef scraps to chasing after mice. The cat is regal even in a dumpster; it pounces on the scraps, "using its front paws to gather them expertly into a neater pile, then settling down on its stomach to eat, growling huskily in its pleasure as it chewed the flesh." The cat's behavior inspires a conversation that includes commentary about the Board of Health, about political correctness (". . . insultin' your feline gender diversity. You happen to be a cat that doesn't like huntin' and then eatin' mice. Most boy cats don't. And for this he's threatenin' to discriminate against you."), about the welfare system, about freeloading, about gelding ("You expect him to do cat work for you, after you did that to him? Stopped him from acting like a self-respecting tomcat? Would you work for a man who had that done to you? He thinks you owe him a living now.").

This is a genre scene in a genre novel, but there is nothing predictable about it; it tells us about the cat, about the people who are observing it and the situation they are in, and about human nature. And it is pure Higgins, who stood for something and never gave up.

This story ran on page M2 of the Boston Globe on 5/07/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.



 KEY FIGURES
Whitey Bulger
Stephen Flemmi
Frank Salemme
Kevin Weeks
John Martorano
John Connolly
John Morris

 FEATURES
Photo gallery
Whitey sightings
Books on Whitey
Whitey chats
Whitey links on the Web

 GLOBE SPECIAL REPORTS
1 9 8 8
The Bulger mystique
A look at Boston's famous brothers, William and Whitey.

1 9 9 5
The story of Whitey's fall
How investigators brought down the elusive criminal.

1 9 9 8
Whitey & the FBI
The relationship between Bulger and Boston's law men.

1 9 9 8
Whitey's life on the run
The fugitive mobster's relentless travels across the country.

Complete list of reports

 GLOBE ARCHIVES

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