THE GIVEN DAY
By Dennis Lehane
Morrow, $27.95, 702 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
Let there be no doubt: Dennis Lehane is a novelist of the first rank. Yes, he began as a writer of thrillers or mysteries or cops and robbers books, but — apologies to authors who write only in those genres — he’s more than that. His first five novels, featuring a male-female P.I. team, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, were clearly noir-ish. But in 2001 he shattered that mold with “Mystic River.” Like the others, it was set in his hometown of Boston, but it revealed an emotional and psychological depth not found in the earlier books.
A surprise bestseller, “Mystic River” racked up sales of more than 100,000 just in hardcover, and the movie version (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tim Robbins and Sean Penn, both of whom won Academy Awards, and Kevin Bacon) was also a big hit. Since then, Mr. Lehane has written one more novel, the also highly praised “Shutter Island,” and a play, “Coronado.” It should also be noted that Mr. Lehane, like fellow novelists David Price and George Pelecanos — the latter convinced creator David Simon to hire his buddy Lehane — has written several episodes of the HBO television drama “The Wire.” Eagerly awaited, “The Given Day” is Mr. Lehane’s labor-of-love fictional account of the Boston police strike of 1919 and the dramatic year that preceded it.
While Mr. Lehane wrote the five Kenzie-Gennaro books in five years, it took him seven to write the last three works, and they (and we) are the better for it. Five years ago, in an interview with “Publisher’s Weekly,” Mr. Lehane said, “I was living with Mystic River for 10 years before I wrote it. I had said everything I had to say about the two detectives and wanted to move on to something different.” The author also told PW, “The [police] strike changed everything. It had a big effect on the unionization movement, and Prohibition came on the heels of that, then Calvin Coolidge promising to break the unions. That’s all linked to what’s going on now.”
While Dennis Lehane has an M.A. in creative writing and has taught writing (at Tufts and the Harvard Extension School), I think it’s a fair bet he’s not a postmodernist. The only two things worth talking about in fiction, he believes, are plot and character. And “The Given Day” has ample amounts of both. He once said, regarding what his interviewer called the “high/low debate” that has created two opposing literary camps over the last 40 years, “You can’t separate character — which is what the higher set champions — and plot — which is what the other side defends. They are both in service to each other. If you go to any great work of art, you talk about plot all day and then you talk about character all day. Just give me a well-written book.”
And that is exactly what Mr. Lehane has given us in “The Given Day,” which he said in 2002 would be a five- or six-year project. “It’ll be an epic about ‘small-scale violence.’” A small-scale epic about violence might be more accurate, but however you cut it, “The Given Day” is a beauty, though that may seem an odd word to describe a book that contains so much pain and heartache and, at the end, a fair amount of violence.
It is indeed epical, covering as it does politics, race, ethnicity (there would have been few policemen to riot if the Irish hadn’t made it to these shores, and especially to Boston), love, death, sex and baseball. (One of the main recurring characters through whose eyes the story is told, albeit myopically, is Babe Ruth, at the time a star pitcher for the Red Sox until he discovered his greater love was hitting — and then got traded to the hated Yankees when he asked for a big raise.)
Mainly, the action and the book, which build to the riot itself with a steady pace and just enough added tension in each section, revolves around two main characters, Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence. Danny is the son and nephew of two of Boston’s most legendary cops, both of whom are “the finest” only by association (they have very dirty hands), and Luther is a black munitions worker on the run from a bad scene not entirely of his own making. They meet, which is unusual enough for the time and place, and become friends, which was all-but-unheard of then, because Luther goes to work for Danny’s parents as a houseman.
With Luther pining for the girl he left behind in Tulsa, and Danny mooning over Nora, the Irish immigrant who is to marry his brother, Mr. Lehane has lots of room for depicting character, and he does a very good job of it. But he also does a fine job with the plot, which thickens as the strike looms. Danny may be a blood relative of the brass, but his sympathies are clearly with the men on the beat, so even though he’s supposed to infiltrate the union and report on it, he finds himself drawn to the cause. As for Edward McKenna, Danny’s uncle, this truly evil creation tries to use his knowledge of why Luther fled Oklahoma to involve him, unwittingly, in the destruction of the fledgling NAACP.
Mr. Lehane also makes major use of actual historical figures, from Ruth to J. Edgar Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Jack Reed and W.E.B. Dubois to the radical Luigi Galleani. I’m normally put off by such fictionalizing, but in this book it didn’t bother me (well, maybe a little with the fish-in-the-barrel depiction of a young J. Edgar Hoover, who must have had some saving grace). The author also does a particularly good job of portraying the very real threat represented by the bomb-happy radical anarchists of the era, a societal problem the extent and seriousness of which many modern-day Americans have forgotten, or were unaware of. (See Bruce Watson’s readable “Sacco & Vanzetti” of last year.)
While Mr. Lehane does an excellent job with the plot — except perhaps for the finale where some of his resolutions strain credulity a bit — I enjoyed the characterization aspect of this book even more. From the Babe’s vague unease over the inequities he sees all around him (including his own lifestyle) to the passionate longing of both Danny and Luther for the women they love but who seem to be beyond their reach, the author strikes one true note after another.
David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” once wrote, “On [network TV] either poor people are the salt of the earth or contemptible thugs to be hunted down by the Lenny Briscoes and the Andy Sipowiczes of the world. But not in the fiction of Dennis Lehane: He’s writing about the America that is always in danger of being left behind, white working class, black underclass the other America.”
And now he’s done it with a long but clearly focused lens on the past.
“The Given Day” is a book for both the head and the heart. The publisher calls it Mr. Lehane’s “masterpiece.” I usually dismiss such claims as pub-hype, but in this case I wholeheartedly agree. Buy this book.
• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.