Politicians? They’re just like garbagemen. ”They cost too much and they smell bad, but you got to have them.” That’s the general sentiment, anyway, up in rural Vermont, circa 1968, the setting for George V. Higgins’ latest grab bag of dirty tricks and nasty, gorgeous talk. Victories — a title that’s double-dipped in Higgins-style irony — offers a quirky close-up of a bygone (fictional) race for the House of Representatives, with a do-nothing veteran congressman facing off against a know-nothing local celebrity.
The Republican incumbent, crowding 80, is former banker Bob Wainwright, a penny-pinching conservative who has gotten elected — ”just by being there” — to 14 consecutive terms from Vermont’s sleepy second district. His Democratic challenger, pushing 40, will be Hank Briggs, a popular relief pitcher in major-league baseball until his recent retirement to the family farm. A natural candidate, right? After all, who doesn’t like a sports hero? (Think Bill Bradley — but without the Ivy League polish.) Especially one who’s proven himself on the sports-banquet circuit, making after-dinner speeches and aw shucks ad-libs with the best of them.
Still, Hank’s mighty reluctant to run when first approached by his old high-school pal Ed Cobb, the state’s most powerful, most ruthlessly ambitious Democrat. And the novel’s quiet, steady first half chugs along with Hank as he weighs options and gets advice, solicited and un-, from family, friends, and neighbors. His bitter wife, Lil, an overweight recluse, hoots at the idea of a Briggs candidacy. Loathsome son Ted laughs in Hank’s face: ”You, run for Congress? You don’t even read the papers, ‘cept for the sports section.” Most of the folks in Hank’s village are skeptical, laconically noting Congressman Wainwright’s track record and Hank’s meager qualifications. (”I’d vote for you for ballplayer,” says one.)
What, then, convinces Hank to give this ”hopeless shot” a try? Well, it’s sure not idealism, even if the year is 1968; Hank has no strong feelings about either Vietnam or civil rights. But, though he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t ”know sh— from politics,” Hank does start to get the sense that he’d be good at it. Even more important, this being a Higgins novel, he owes Ed Cobb, owes him ”big” — for arranging a cover-up back in ‘61 when Hank and another carousing ballplayer wound up in a Rhode Island motel with a dead hooker on their hands.
So, once the congressional campaign gets under way, don’t look for the moral scorekeeping of conventional political drama. Both candidates have integrity of a sort. Neither one, however, has any problem exploiting the death in the Vietnam War of a young soldier from Vermont, even if it means turning a ”trigger-happy little bastard” into a war hero. And the ultimate victory depends more on dumb luck than on strategy, principles, or issues.
True, not even Higgins, with his fine Boston cynicism, can make politicians as entertainingly outrageous as the lowlifes who populate his very best books — from 1972’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle to last year’s Trust (which centered on Ed Cobb’s least savory associates). But if this low-key fable lacks the tight plotting and rude zest of vintage George V. Higgins, it’s oddly absorbing nonetheless: part sociology, part human comedy — with total conviction in all the grim details and monstrous conversations. B+