What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, August 29, 2014

George V. Higgins's Profane Style

My favorite part of James Wood’s superb "Away Thinking About Things" (The New Yorker, August 25, 2014), a review of James Kelman’s new story collection If It Is Your Life, is his consideration of the way Kelman “repeats and refines ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ ”:

A single sentence will deploy the same word differently. “If it was me I’d just tell them to fuck off; away and fuck I’d tell them, that’s what I’d say if it was me,” the narrator thinks in “The One with the Dog.” There is also “fucking” as a kind of midsentence punctuation (functioning like “but”): “She would just fucking, she would laugh at him.” And also as impacted repetition: “Fuck sake, of course she would; what was the fucking point of fucking, trying to fucking keep it away, of course she’d be fucking worrying about him,” Ronnie thinks in the story “Greyhound for Breakfast.”

Reading that, I immediately thought of my favorite novelist, George V. Higgins, and the resonant way he deployed “fuckin’ ”:

The Digger leaned on the bar. “Lemme tell you something, Harrington,” he said, “you take the rough with the fuckin’ smooth in this life. I went out to Vegas there and I said, ‘Fuck me, fuck me.’ And they fucked me. Then I get that gaff job. I got unfucked.” – from The Digger’s Game (1973)

You take the rough with the fuckin’ smooth in this life – this is a very powerful line, and its use of “fuckin’” to modify “smooth” is what powers it.

Higgins also used the contraction “fuck’re” to great effect. “Where the fuck’re you taking me?” Jackie Brown says, in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1971). In The Rat on Fire (1981), Don says to Mickey, “The fuck’re you doin’ there?”

One of Higgins’s most memorable uses of “fuckin’ ” occurs near the end of his brilliant Cogan’s Trade (1975):

“There’s all kinds of reasons for things,” Cogan said. “Guys get whacked for doing things, guys get whacked for not doing things, it doesn’t matter. The only thing matters is if you’re the guy that’s gonna get whacked. That’s the only fuckin’ thing.”

That’s the only fuckin’ thing. Higgins/Cogan is talking about impending violent death. “Fuckin’ ” is used here to underscore the brute reality of being “the guy that’s gonna get whacked.” “Fuckin’ ” gives the line its existential hardness. The passage is a memento mori delivered Boston underworld-style.

Credit: The above photograph of George V. Higgins, by Benno Friedman, appears on the back cover of Higgins’s Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years (1988).

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