"IT'S TIME to write another book," George Higgins said. He was a middle-aging Boston Irishman who worked as an assistant U. S. attorney and had a reputation for tough prose.

George Higgins lifted the paperback edition of his first best seller off the shelf of his bookcase. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle was the name of that book. Norman Mailer liked it. Gay Talese and Ross Macdonald liked it. "He can write dialogue so authentic it spits," said Life magazine.

George Higgins sat back down. It was time to write the first page of his 10th book in 10 years. Here is what he wrote: "'I do not need this bleep,' Terry Mooney said."

Higgins probably read it over and liked it. It sounded like him. He kept typing and came to the second paragraph. "I hate the little blep, John Roscommon thought after their meeting." Higgins was in his old form. He went on through to the third paragraph. "'This guy,' Roscommon told mickey and Don and every other trooper in the Attorney General's office, 'this guy was appointed directly by God to clear up all of the problems of suffering mankind. Here I am, I have been running around the world and dealing with the Japanese when I was a kid with fuzz on my cheeks and they have got Nambu machine guns with which they have every intention of blowing my bleep off before we finally get Douglas MacArthur safely at home in Tokyo, and they didn't make it. I was Wyatt bleepin' Earp and I keep my head down and no bleep-bleep Jap blows my bleep off and I in the meantime blow the bleeps off of several Japs."

Higgins read his third paragraph over. It had nothing to do with the story he was going to tell. That was all right because it was how Higgins was going to write this new book. People would talk a great deal about things that had nothing to do with the story. They would also have strong opinions on scumbags and blacks and arson and lawyers. If they did not have strong opinions, the story would be all over half way through chapter two.

So they would tell jokes and money stories and trouble stories. Everybody would tell their troubles to everybody else. They would talk about what happened to them this morning after breakfast and who bleeped who last night. Leo Proctor the arsonist, and Jimmy Dannaher, the arsonist's helper, would stand in the alley and talk for six pages before they would walk into the cellar of the building they were going to burn down.

Dumb scumbags like Proctor and his pals would always talk too much in the pastry shop where they met. This would eventually give them brand new trouble to talk about and would make life easier for the cops who were paid to dress up like truckers and eavesdrop on them.

There is something odd about things here in Boston, Higgins thought as he wrote on deeply into his novel. Leo Proctor the arsonist talks exactly like Billy Malatesta, the crooked fire marshal, who talks like Jerry Fein, the scumbag lawyer who hires Loe Proctor to torch his building. And they all talk like John Roscommon, the cop, who strangely enough talks exactly like Lois Reynolds, who is Jerry Fein's secretary. Unusual.

Not only that, they all talk like stand-up comics and sometimes they are very funny, as Leo Proctor is when he comes home to his fat wife, or when he explains to Billy Malatesta all about bankers.

"You ever talk to one of them guys? They don't live in the real world, I'm tellin' you. What they do is live in the banks. They got their desks out in front of everybody and that is where they live. They can't sleep, fight, frown, wash, bleep or change their underwear. . . . Those guys're all in favor of helping everybody in the whole wide world as long as it don't involve none of their money. . . . They may be all vice-presidents or something, and they're making nine grand a year and they all eat lunch at Slagle's and have the vegetable special and the iced tea that goes with it and it costs a buck twenty-five and they leave a fifteen-cent tip, but there's millions in those vaults and it all belongs to them."

George Higgins finished typing the last chapter of his novel, which sometimes sounded more like Damon Runyon than George Higgins. But that was all right. It was all all right, whatever came out of the typewriter. You sent it off to New York and they sent you back an envelope full of money. Soon it would be time to start another book.

He knew now he would call this one The Rat On Fire. The title would be ironic because it could apply to Jerry Fein or Leo Proctor or Billy Malatesta or a meanminded black man named Alfred Davis or to some genuine four-legged rats who would play a key role in this story even though they did not get to talk about their troubles. The title would be yet another kind of joke. But the rats would all get it in the end.