Outlaws by George V. Higgins

I’ve read negative reviews at times of books that seem to swing into entirely different directions towards the end, as if it’s a failure of the book, but it’s something I like. Aristotle’s unities are all very well, but artistic rules are made to be broken. The second half of Sam Delany’s Triton is not at all what the first half is setting up (there is ample strongly based criticism of this, I admit – it feels rather like a loss of interest, but I like the surprise); and I love the Dostoyevskian bleakness of the ending of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, up to then a fairly straightforward crime novel.

Outlaws pulls a similar switch in its last tenth or so. Up to then, it’s been about a bunch of spoiled lefty wealthy kids getting into crime, and the investigations and trials around their activities. This is told with his usual technique, that is almost entirely in dialogue between involved parties. He writes the most convincing naturalistic conversation as I’ve ever seen.

Then at the end we suddenly find ourselves with an almost wholly different cast of characters. The mother of two of the youngsters, hitherto seen as a distraught and rather helpless figure, is revealed as someone utterly different, and we are in a very different world, and the plot is concluded in a way that is surprising and that our previous characters never really understand. The reason this works, rather than feeling like a deus ex machina cheat, is that there are strong implicit thematic parallels with what has been shown earlier: characters feeling they are above the rules, that they can make their own choices without regard for law: most of the novel is about rogue upper class kids, justifying their actions with student-lefty rhetoric; the last part moves us into a world of FBI agents and embassies, behaving at least as badly and with their own unconvincing justifications. It’s a risky game, this kind of flip, and can come as a betrayal of the expectations the author has built, but this is masterfully pulled off.