In almost all of Higgins' novels (a prolific, uneven outpouring since 1972), there's a tension between storytelling and stylized close-ups: the author's fondness for zooming in on his characters' quirks (above all their speech patterns) sometimes gets in the way of pace, focus, even basic plot-craft. This time, aside from a small letdown towards the end, the tension works just fine--with a slow-building tale of politics and business (loyalty vs. selfishness, ambition vs. decency) that is enriched, not swamped, by those notorious Higgins digressions into slangy, oratorical dialogue. The central premise: for various, venal reasons, the U.S. Dept. of Justice office in Boston is out to nail construction-tycoon Ken Farley, longtime crony of a former governor (the Feds' real target). But Farley has been relatively honest and very careful: a bribery-entrapment plan and other schemes all fail. So the desperate Feds slowly zero in on two potential weak-links within the Farley entourage. One is Farley's pathetic, estranged wife Nell, a schizophrenic who's been in and out of psychiatric wards for 25 years, and is now holed up (with two full-time watchdogs) at a remote resort-hotel; in her crazier moods, she'd eagerly give false evidence against Farley. The other potential witness is Farley's chauffeur: Eugene ""Bucky"" Arbuckle, 41, whose promising U.S. Navy career was scuttled by a nobly motivated fistfight that ended in manslaughter, four years in the brig, and dishonorable discharge. And this past makes Bucky (on probation) vulnerable to government pressure--especially when he gets into a minor scuffle with an obnoxious drunk after a Julio Iglesias concert. Will Bucky--a stand-up guy, deeply grateful to generous Mr. Farley for giving him that big second chance--rat on his boss? Will the Feds sink so low as to capitalize on Nell's madness? Those are the two primary sources of suspense here, neither of which quite pays off in full; loose ends abound at the ironic fade-out. But the plot, with crisscrossing offshoots, is more than strong enough to support an impressive parade of Higgins set-pieces: Nell's insanely mercurial monologues; Bucky's charming, neo-Runyonesque relationship with a pair of working-class sisters; the murmurous tirades of Farley's repressed housekeeper; the verbal maneuvers of an array of cynical, tough lawyers. And the result, though less gripping than the first section of Outlaws and less ambitious than lmposters, is Higgins' most fully satisfying fiction of recent years--full of sour observation and rude comic energy, but also oddly touching, with an almost Jamesian stateliness of form and scope.