By George V. Higgins
Henry Holt. 298 pp. $19.95
THE STATE of Vermont, which last month elected a Socialist to the House of Representatives, has a long tradition of picking unconventional politicians. Few could seem as unlikely as Henry Briggs, the appealing hero of Victories. A washed-up relief pitcher for the Red Sox and the Pirates (12-year career record 122 and 68, with a 3.93 ERA), Briggs is, in July 1967, living quietly on his family farm in the village of Occident and working as a game warden in the mountains around town. He has a wife, Lillian, who hates him for his years of infidelity on the road; a son, Ted, who resents him on general '60s principles; and a daughter, Sally, who admires him because "you don't have a program, and you don't have an agenda, and you don't have a whole list of things you want to do."
Briggs also has a friend, Ed Cobb, who is Speaker of the Vermont House. Ed Cobb holds Briggs's marker: the politician saved Briggs from bad trouble in 1961, when he and a fellow ballplayer picked up two women at a sports-fan banquet in Providence, and one of them chugged a quart of vodka and died. Now Cobb needs someone to run against Rep. Robert Wainwright, the Republican who has represented Vermont's Second District for the previous 30 years, and he's picked Henry Briggs.
Wainwright is the perfect congressman for Vermont voters, who "look at politicians . . . just like we do garbagemen. You got to have them. They cost too much and they smell bad, but you got to have them." A flinty Vermont banker, Wainwright turns back most of his office budget each year and only sends out one newsletter a session. He drives a 1958 Pontiac Chieftain, buys drip-dry shirts in bulk and washes them out in the sink of his Capitol Hill efficiency apartment, carries a sandwich and a thermos of tea on the train, and gets his holiday turkey by putting $1,000 in a Baltimore bank.
This race -- the salty outsider against the iron insider -- is the stuff of which great political novels are made. But, alas, it must be said at the outset that Victories is not as good as it sounds. George V. Higgins is an accomplished writer of popular fiction, with a number of gripping crime and political novels to his credit. But here Higgins assembles an appealing, vivid cast, and then squanders his material. Victories is oddly misshapen, intermittently dull and ultimately infuriating.
To begin with the book's strengths: Henry Briggs is a version of Mark Harris's level-headed, unassuming Henry Wiggen, out of baseball and drifting through middle age. For all his salty past, Henry Briggs in 1967 has a gentle way with people and a quietly gallant self-respect. Caught in a life that is often boring and sometimes unpleasant, he doesn't feel sorry for himself; forced to take on a challenge that is probably impossible, he puts his head down and plows forward.
But Henry's story is hobbled by the book's structure and style. For one thing, Higgins, as usual, insists on telling much of the story in dialogue. Not since John O'Hara has an American writer made such a disciplined and successful attempt to capture the rhythms of American speech, and in Victories, as in all his other work, he displays an unerring ear for the way real people really talk. But Higgins's very success is a snare: His dialogue often reads less like fiction than like a transcript of a tape recording, complete with repetitions, digressions and confusing grammatical lapses. Having noted that many people leave out prepositions in speech, for example, Higgins renders this quirk precisely, with results that are irritating at best and confusing at worst. Here, for example, is how Henry Briggs asks Cobb why he has dropped by to see him: "Anything else on your mind, you come on a Saturday, bother a man when he's annoying the people, minding his business at home?"
Much of the story is told in elliptical speech like this, interspersed with clumsy exposition seemingly designed only to fill space: "She went to the refrigerator and took out a covered Pyrex casserole dish. She closed the refrigerator and opened the dish. She used a spoon to taste the contents, nodded, recovered the dish, and took it to the stove. She put it on a second burner and lighted a low flame under it."
A second problem is that, having set a cracking good story in action, Higgins cannot seem to keep his mind on it. After a rather leisurely beginning, he gets the reader engaged in Henry Briggs' quest, only to veer off for page after page into largely irrelevant subplots -- the story of a high-school athlete who goes bad and disappoints his family, the saga of one of Briggs's neighbors who joins the Army to stay out of jail and dies in Vietnam. Any one of these subplots could make a fine novel on its own -- but their relationship to Henry's story is peripheral. The effect is a little like being trapped on an airplane or in a barber's chair by a bore who cannot understand the difference between what you want to hear and what you don't.
But the most infuriating flaw in Victories appears at the end, when Higgins seems to lose interest in the book and hurries us through the end of the story in a dozen-odd pages. This is an election novel, after all, and the most important question is who wins and how. Higgins drops this information as an afterthought, in a newspaper column he prints in its entirety. Here again his unerring ear is a liability: Having mastered the rhythms of uninspired small-town journalism, he then subjects the reader to page after page of it. This kind of prose is bad enough at a quarter a throw; in a book that costs $20, it is almost unforgivable.
People like me, who have admired Higgins' work in the past, will find Victories a major disappointment. That does not dull my appetite for his next book. He is a man of enormous gifts, who should be forgiven a lapse or two. After all, even Henry Briggs could only save about two-thirds of his games.
Garrett Epps is the author of "The Shad Treatment" and "The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington."