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cogan's trade

5 october 2021

Midway through Cogan's Trade, one character says to another

There's things in the world that guys do besides going around and doing things to other guys. (82)
But as usual in a novel by George V. Higgins, we don't see any of those things. All that happens in the book is that guys do things to other guys. Jackie Cogan's trade is doing those things, more efficiently and with less compunction than other guys do them.

Cogan's Trade is the third of Higgins' novels that I've read. I would rank it even with The Friends of Eddie Coyle and just slightly below the insanely good Digger's Game in quality. Like those other two novels, Cogan's Trade is almost entirely told in dialogue and is entirely about the ways in which small-time Boston-area gangsters have managed to fuck up their entire lives.

There is only one woman character in Cogan's Trade, a black prostitute who is also the only non-white character. She is a professional; the white men who pay for her services do not respect her, but they do not particularly abuse her, unless you consider all sex work to be abuse, which is a conversation for another review. Musing on this aspect of Cogan's Trade I remembered that in Eddie Coyle and The Digger's Game, there are also almost no women characters or characters of color. Higgins builds an entire fictional world out of the way that white male assholes talk to one another about gambling, and violence, and sports, and women, and black people. The longsuffering and sometimes gleefully vengeful wives of these assholes are vividly evoked in this dialogue, but you can sometimes be surprised to notice that the wives don't actually appear. Higgins' novels are a hall of mirrors, and the reflective surface is the dialogue that the wiseguys exchange.

The blurbs on the back of the 2011 paperback of Cogan's Trade praise the dialogue, of course, calling it "authentic" and saying that each character's voice is "as distinctive as a fingerprint." I doubt both claims. Though Higgins worked as a prosecutor in Boston before turning to fiction and academia, and certainly had opportunities to hear tough guys talking tough, the language of a Higgins novel seems to me essentially an imaginative construct that exists in its own universe, with little representational reference to the real world of Boston hoodlums. And Higgins' characters, with a few exceptions, all sound the same. The exception in Cogan's Trade is somebody called "the driver," an attorney who works for an unseen higher-up mobster simply called "the man." The Driver speaks a more standard English, more literate and learned, than the assholes in the book, though of course he is an asshole as well, just one with a better education. All the rest speak like guys out of a George V. Higgins novel. This is not remotely a flaw.

I wonder if I'm rationalizing my love for Higgins' language by finding ways to excuse its misogyny and its racism. The N-word appears fairly often here, always spoken by racist white guys, and it doesn't have to. Women are disparaged; though I don't sense they are hated; the life's losers who populate Higgins novels curiously respect their wives and realize that putting up with themselves is not a bed of roses.

I don't think I'm rationalizing too much. As I've said before, I think that Higgins reinvented a certain kind of white machismo for the post-censorship age, and has had enormous influence on writers of dialogue ever since, even if those writers perhaps don't realize the debt they owe to Higgins. Cogan's Trade, even if it is the second or third-best Higgins novel, is a more-than-minor American masterpiece.

Higgins, George V. Cogan's Trade. 1974. New York: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard [Random House], 2011. PZ H .H6365Co