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From Barnes & NobleGeorge Higgins's Swan Song
At End of Day, George V. Higgins's final novel, was completed in the fall of 1999, just weeks before the author's death at the age of 59. It seems unlikely that the coming year will bring us a novel with a sadder, more appropriate title. Like Higgins's famous first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, At End of Day is an authoritative and decidedly unromantic portrait of life as it is really lived in the criminal underworld of Boston. Like Eddie Coyle, it is the clear product of a genuine American master.
Two figures dominate the crowded narrative: Arthur McKeach and Nick Cistaro, career criminals who have clawed their way to the top of the food chain by ruthlessly eliminating all competitors and who have remained at the top -- unchallenged and unindicted -- for an unnaturally long time. Together, McKeach and Cistaro have successfully opposed the traditional center of organized crime -- the Cosa Nostra -- and have established an empire based on extortion, gambling, drug dealing, loan sharking, and the rigorous application of terrorist tactics. They rule by fear and will do whatever is necessary to preserve what they have built.
At End of Day is the story of the violent world of McKeach and Cistaro, and of the secret "arrangement" that has kept them in power -- and out of jail -- for decades. More than 30 years before the primary narrative begins, McKeach and his partner established a symbiotic relationship with the FBI's resident expert on organized crime. In exchange for information to be used against their common enemy -- the Boston Mafia -- the two received a degree of protection from the inconvenient investigations of local law enforcement agencies. This immensely profitable arrangement, which was passed along like a family legacy from one FBI agent to the next, has persisted into the present day and has contributed enormously to the durability of the McKeach/Cistaro empire.
This devious, mutually corrupting relationship stands at the heart of this painstaking portrait of the Boston criminal milieu. As always, Higgins fleshes out the portrait with a varied, credible gallery of characters on both sides of the law. As always, he brings these characters to immediate life through his uncanny ear for dialogue and his matchless ability to create the sustained, rambling dramatic monologues that are so much a part of his narrative technique. In At End of Day, as in all of Higgins's novels, a succession of characters step into the spotlight and proceed to talk, gradually revealing their histories and circumstances, their essential natures, and the shape and direction of their circumscribed lives.
Monologue follows monologue, each one amplifying, illuminating -- sometimes even contradicting -- the ones that have come before. Together, they create a coherent picture of the predatory universe that most of Higgins's characters call home.
The inhabitants of this universe include FBI agents Jack Farrier and Darren Stoat, the latest inheritors of the McKeach/Cistaro relationship; Jim Dowd and Emmett Naughton, Boston policemen who are ignorant of the relationship and have their own independent agendas to pursue; Todd Naughton, Emmett's son, who is drawn simultaneously to the world of the cop and the world of the criminal; Tim Sexton, a paraplegic Vietnam vet who conceives an astonishing plan for accumulating and distributing prescription medications; and Max Rascob, a former public accountant who is forced -- as a result of a single, irrevocable mistake -- to throw in his lot with Arthur McKeach and Nick Cistaro. These and other equally vital characters -- all of them bound together by blood, circumstances, or a sense of common cause -- light up the novel, and are as effortlessly, seamlessly real as an overheard conversation in a corner bar.
At End of Day is George V. Higgins at the top of his form and may be his most successful novel since his 1987 masterpiece, Outlaws. No one understood the world of modern urban hoodlums better than Higgins. No one reproduced the scatological rhythms of their everyday speech with the same reportorial accuracy. George V. Higgins died much too soon, and he will be greatly missed. Fortunately for all of us, he left behind a varied, voluminous body of work that includes two dozen novels, a collection of short stories, and several volumes of cogent nonfiction. These 30 books, though not all uniformly excellent, constitute a large and singular accomplishment. The best of them -- such as Outlaws, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Cogan's Trade, The Digger's Game, and, of course, his swan song, At End of Day -- will be read, admired, and remembered for a very long time to come.