“Higgins? Ya mean the guy, guy wrote about Coyle and Digger and Cogan? Went down to D.C. to check out some of them big shot crooks…?”
That’s how a George V. Higgins character might describe the author-attorney’s recent change of venue. The six-foot Irishman with the map of Southie on his face is as Boston as Bunker Hill, and the city’s underworld has provided him material for all his bestsellers. They started in 1972 with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, followed by The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974). But this year Higgins’ literary locale has been Washington, first in a political novel, City on a Hill, and now in his just published report on Watergate entitled The Friends of Richard Nixon (Little, Brown).
Higgins brought six years experience as a federal prosecutor to his study of the case, and his conclusions are sometimes unorthodox. He dismisses Sen. Sam Ervin as a “moralist” and Sen. Howard Baker as “second moralist.” He characterizes John Dean’s efforts to cover up White House involvement as “amateurish,” but concedes, “Dean lacked the mob’s sanctions, the ability to get a guy rubbed out if necessary.”
As for the White House tapes, Higgins says, “speaking as a connoisseur of criminal behavior, it was asinine that they didn’t destroy them.” He says of President Nixon: “He thought if he said he was innocent, it would make him so—like the rooster who thinks the sun comes up because he crows.” (Yet Higgins acknowledges that he voted for Nixon twice.)
Higgins’ most controversial judgment—one which has already infuriated liberals—is his excoriation of Judge John Sirica, whom the author claims conducted a virtual “inquisition” by prosecuting, in effect, the original seven break-in defendants himself. Higgins clearly has little use for liberals. “As I say in my book, a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. Look at Richard Ben-Veniste,” Higgins argues, referring to one of the young Watergate prosecuting attorneys, “if you’re for him, he’s feisty; if you’re not, he’s arrogant.”
The blunt-spoken Higgins did not have to strain to figure out the deleted expletives from the Watergate tapes. “People say my characters swear too much. Well,” he insists, “to truly render a hardhat’s—or a politician’s—speech, I would probably have to add a few more”—and he cheerfully rolls his New England accent around an expletive or two—”than I already have.”
A native of Rockland, Mass., Higgins had a “comfortable” childhood as the offspring of two schoolteachers. “I never paid the kind of dues my characters have to.” Influenced by Hemingway and O’Hara, he began writing while still a teenager. He was introduced to the world of the street during summer vacations from Boston College, where he got a B.A. and his law degree, and from Stanford, where he received an M.A. in English. “I enjoyed the company of the guys I painted houses and drove trucks with as much as the friendship of my fellow students,” he recalls. “I’ve always been lucky—people constantly tell me stories.”
While Higgins is at work on a book, he will spend two or three weeks of 17-hour days at the typewriter. “I have no idea what I’ll say when I start a novel,” he professes. “I work fast so I can see how it will come out.”
When not writing, Higgins manages his own Boston law firm, established in 1973 after he resigned as an assistant U.S. district attorney. “Mostly, we do litigation,” he explains. “But only a third of the cases we take are criminal. A guy’ll come in and say ‘I’m mad.’ I do a little figuring and say, ‘Yeah, but are you $4,000 mad?’ ”
Royalties and enough angry clients have changed Higgins’ life-style from “Can I afford to buy a new Camaro?” to “How long should I keep my black Porsche?” Separated from his wife, Betty, Higgins lives in a Boston apartment and occasionally aboard his 37-foot Irwin ketch on which he cruises with his children, Susan, 7, and John, 6. He is also a skier, a photography buff, and a sports fan who studies the Red Sox and Bruin team rosters as if they were veniremen.
At 36—”actually, 26 going on 54,” Higgins admits, “I don’t know how long I can stay at this adrenaline level. If I don’t get six hours of sleep, I’m nodding off the next afternoon.” He gazes out the window of his sunny 37th floor office. “My life right now,” says Higgins, “is damned fascinating. I’m going to start another novel right after Christmas. I have no idea what it will be about.”
“George’ll be back,” says the Higgins character. “Ain’t Boston his town? So what’ll it be, bottled Bud or Gansett on draft?”