Friday, January 07, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- The Rat on Fire

When I travel, I often like to take along a book with some connection to my destination. Back in November, I was headed to Boston, so I read "The Rat on Fire" by George V. Higgins while I was shuttling between Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
If readers today remember Higgins at all, most know him for his first novel, 1972's "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," and the movie adaptation starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. It's truly a great and game-changing crime novel – grimly honest, bleakly funny and eminently quotable. (My favorite line: "This life is hard, but it's harder if you're stupid.") In contrast to "The Godfather" with its sleek and confident Mafiosi, Eddie Coyle is an unlovable, small-time Irish mope who barely comprehends the forces he's set in motion against himself.
Before he became a novelist, Higgins was an attorney and a journalist. Some critics called "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" an overnight success. Higgins would reply, "That was one hell of a damned long night, lasting seventeen years..." He wrote 14 unpublished novels in those 17 years and eventually destroyed them all.
Dialogue was Higgins' forte, and he wasn't afraid to employ it in huge swathes of rhetoric that run for pages at a time. His 1981 novel "The Rat on Fire" is as good as example of this strategy as any of his books. The book runs a little over 200 pages in paperback, but I'd bet there's not more than 25 pages of descriptive narrative in the whole thing.
Lawyer/talent broker/slumlord Jerry Fein wants to get rid of the buildings he owns, because most of the tenants refuse to pay rent and keep damaging the apartments. The tenants won't pay rent, because the buildings are rotting away and full of rats. The only way to break this impasse might be to hire someone like arsonist Leo Procter, who isn't adverse to setting rodents on fire and sending them up through the walls to spread the flames. What Procter doesn't know is that agents from the attorney general's office have him under surveillance, hoping to catch the fire marshal Procter has been bribing.
Now that we're in the middle of another recession, "The Rat on Fire" seems more relevant than ever. Everyone in it – cops, crooks, politicians – worries that they don't have enough money and is convinced that the System is irredeemably broken. There are no good options anymore, and all you can do is tell stories about how unfair it all is.
Higgins's dialogue is often described as realistic, but it's really not. Nobody, short of Shakespearean actors, spouts the kinds of soliloquies that Higgins constructs. But Higgins knew exactly how Bostonians spoke in the Seventies and Eighties, and there's never a false note in his characters' diction and their references to local customs and landmarks.
 In 1999, Higgins died of a heart attack just short of his 60th birthday, but he managed to publish 27 novels. As a Chronicle reviewer, I have covered only one novel by Higgins, "Sandra Nichols Found Dead." It was a good later work, but not great. But having read "The Rat on Fire," I'm looking forward to going back and discovering more of them.

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