By George V. Higgins
Holt. 448 pp. $25

Go to Chapter One

Politics On the Links

By Garrett Epps
Sunday, November 23, 1997; Page X05
The Washington Post

There's a man in my hometown who knows everything: the owner of each building, when it was built, and what stood on the site before; the history of each business; where the old streetcar routes used to go; which historical figures are buried in which cemetery. Travelling through town with this fellow is fascinating but somewhat slow -- a description that might fit A Change of Gravity, George V. Higgins's ponderous fictional account of a near-scandal involving two small-time Western Massachusetts pols.

Ambrose Merrion is the clerk of court in Hampshire County, Mass., and the protege of Dan Hilliard, former chair of the Ways and Means Committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The two men met in 1959 when Merrion was assistant service manager at Valley Ford and Hilliard dropped by to pick up his black '56 two-door Victoria hardtop. They formed a political alliance and a deep but chaste love relationship that lasted through Hilliard's rise to power at the Boston State House, his politically damaging divorce, and his subsequent retirement to a sinecure as president of Hampton Pond Community College.

Merrion doesn't want much out of life: a lucrative but undemanding job, access to political power without much public fuss, and a weekly round of golf at the Grey Hills Country Club. Hilliard's influence secures him the first two; and he gets his Grey Hills membership -- and buys his friend one -- when the dying county clerk unexpectedly wills him a share of a real estate trust built on kickbacks flowing out of a contract for a new county courthouse.

To poor kids like Merrion and Hilliard, Grey Hills is where God would golf if He could pay the green fees. "Every time that you come back, drive down Valley Drive in the shade of those venerable trees; see the sunlight making the dew silver in the morning; feel the cool breeze slipping down from the hills in summer; or smell the maple burning in the fireplace in the fall, that same sweet lovely hush still welcomes you," Hilliard rhapsodizes.

To Merrion, Grey Hills is his and Hilliard's just reward for having had the chance to steal and not quite having done it. "Grey Hills is the only thing we've ever gotten, from doing what we've done all our lives, that was strictly for us, our reward," he tells his girlfriend, Diane Fox. "There's only one possible explanation for this: it's what we got for being good men."

Someone at the U.S. attorney's office disagrees: "They say it was payment to [Hilliard] under the corrupt bargain you made: a piece of whatever action you got as a result of him getting you that job," Merrion's lawyer explains. So the feds give Merrion a choice of testifying against his only real friend or doing his golfing behind barbed wire from now on.

The muted suspense of this desultory white-collar crime probe, though, is not the real narrative engine of A Change of Gravity. What makes the book oddly absorbing is Higgins's Homeric determination to show us every detail of the world Merrion and Hilliard live in. We learn of Merrion's doomed love affair with Sunny Keller, and of Hilliard's happy home life, disrupted by feminism and the sexual opportunities power brings. We learn the etiquette of patronage in small-town courthouses in Higgins's world. And we are told, in staggering detail, the life history of dozens of minor characters, the vagaries of the Western Massachusetts real estate market, and the fluctuations of Democratic politics over the three decades of Hilliard's career.

The line between raconteur and windbag is a fine one, and Higgins is not always on the right side. But A Change of Gravity held my interest nonetheless, because of the author's determination to show us his characters as they see themselves. As a writer, Higgins has grown more compassionate over the years; he understands and sympathizes with all his people, and this sympathy is what holds our interest throughout a long-winded telling of what is, all told, a tale in a distinctly minor key.

Garrett Epps teaches constitutional law at the University of Oregon. His first novel, "The Shad Treatment," has just been republished in paperback.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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