The Pequod Review:
The Digger’s Game is one of George V. Higgins’s best pure character studies. The Digger of the title is Jerry Doherty, a small-time Boston thief. Jerry maintains a facade of respectability — a wife, four kids, and a struggling bar — but he tends to get himself in debt, often due to gambling or alcohol, and then needs a quick job to pull himself out. He usually finds it, somehow or someway, but it is clear that The Digger is a sad sack destined for a life of just barely getting by. He is Dortmunder without the jokes.
In The Digger’s Game, Jerry loses $18,000 on a mob-funded trip to Vegas and needs to repay his marker. Jerry hits up all of his usual suspects, including his brother (a politically-connected priest; there are no unambiguous good guys in a Higgins novel), and finally schemes his way into a job that will get him out of debt. The plot is a good one, but it’s really just a hook to learn more about The Digger. And Higgins’s great skill is to do it through the cadence, syntax and idioms of Jerry’s speech:
“Now right fuckin’ there is when I should’ve quit, right onna fuckin’ spot,” the Digger said. “But I don’t. I think, I think, I’m different, not like the old coot. I had about sixty of the house money. I had eight-eighty. Beautiful, I think, old bastard’s using up all the bad luck. I’m gonna sit there and make hay. He sits there, calm as hell, nerves like he’s got he oughta be robbing banks, all I gotta do is bet steady and fast and I make a bundle.”
“See what I mean?” the Digger said. “Stupid. No more fives. Twenties. Some good cards, some bad cards, I win some and I lose some, they deal them fuckin’ cards like they’re coming out of a pistol, bang, bang, bang. Pretty soon I haven’t got no money left.”
“I was surprised,” the Digger said. “I had eight-eighty when I started playing twenties. I wasn’t playing that long. I win a few. Can’t be. But there it is, they got the whole eight-eighty back and I, I’m out of money.”
“Now,” the Digger said, “I’m not like the old bastard. I haven’t got no credit card. But, the tour there, special arrangement and all? I can sign a marker. You know about that, right? You being the guy that winds up with the markers.”
“Sure,” the Greek said. “But the idea is, we’re after the guys, got businesses and all, afford it. Not guys like you.”
“Yeah,” the Digger said. “A phone call would’ve gone good, Greek. I didn’t know that. Where I find Richie, kick the living fuckin’ shit out of him a few times?”
“I knew he called you,” the Greek said, “I would’ve called you.”
“Tell you what,” the Digger said, “call him now.”
“Uh uh,” the Greek said, “you owe the fuckin’ money, Dig. Too late now. You signed the paper, you owe the dough. No other way.”
“I did,” the Digger said, “That night I sign five of what you got.”
“That’s when you should’ve quit,” the Greek said.
“Yeah,” the Digger said, “I should’ve quit when I get onna plane, me giving the Greek all that, plus the eight-twenty I gave them that they give me.”
Higgins is often criticized for his descriptive prose. But when you write dialogue this good it doesn’t matter. The Digger’s Game may not quite match Higgins’s other masterpieces, but this is another strong book, and one that is much more than just a crime novel.