Lehane, Dennis. The Given Day. NY: HarperCollins, 2008
By Walt Giersbach
Tribulation in a Boston Dimly Remembered
The police/mystery novel has always been suspect as literature, even when Umberto Eco and Jasper Fforde transcend genre into a more literary level. Dennis Lehane skirted this genre tag skillfully in Mystic River; Shutter Island; Darkness, Take My Hand; and Gone, Baby, Gone, creating well-rounded characters who functioned in realistic, inventive story lines. But, often, his writing remained “mysteries.” His work in The Given Day, however, exceeds all his former portraits of troubled people trying to function in his troubled Boston area.
Lehane takes the reader back to a relatively unexplored time just after The Great War and influenza epidemic, but before the ‘20s roared in. In his treatment of the time and place, he was compared in The New York Times to John Dos Passos and The U.S.A. Trilogy. Boston’s police department was being paid 1908 poverty-level wages, could be ordered to put in 70-hour weeks, and worked in vermin-infested quarters. Worse, it was a time when strikers found themselves at the mercy of police nightsticks and attacks by goons, African-Americans didn’t walk through white neighborhoods, anarchists were blowing up buildings, and Nativist cultural attitudes poisoned the civic weal. The Irish — in Boston, at least — ran the civil service at the expense of the Italians and “Bolsheviks” and for the benefit of the Anglo Brahmins.
Lehane’s rich narrative — in 700 pages — leads inexorably to the police strike of 1919, large-scale rioting in the city, families dissolved by “traitorous” behavior, and wanton murders. Police officer Aidan “Danny” Coughlin; the African-American, Luther Leonard, who left wife and child after murdering a cocaine dealer; and the immigrant Irish maid, Nora, form the triumvirate of characters working to survive in this turbulent environment. .
Lehane slowly lets the historical period unfold through the eyes of Babe Ruth, shortly to leave the Red Sox, and shoehorns the Great Bambino in and out of the novel. Babe’s character is wonderful history, which Lehane has researched beautifully, but unfortunately it has little to do with the story’s development.
By creating this universe called “Boston 1918-19,” Lahane time-travels us into an alternative history that is both distant and familiar. The streets, department stores and place names are all identifiable today. While this is entertaining — and emotionally involving — it remains questionable whether Lahane is over-dramatizing the venality, mayhem, cultural biases, and civil breakdown of his city and forebears. Enjoy The Given Day as drama and enlightenment on issues that plague us today, not history, in spite of the author’s bibliographic sources.
Reading Lehane’s work (of seven novels and a collection) made me reflect that there are books that launch a neophyte writer’s career, those that put air under the author’s wings, and finally the literary triumph that puts the writer at the top of his game. The Given Day will give any reader pause to examine the cultural baggage we carry as Americans and that which has been smuggled into our luggage by strangers. The Given Day is a dense literary work firmly nestled in a fascinating time when the country began to turn another corner.
From the Book Review: Dennis Lehane's most recent novel is Moonlight Mile. You can find Given Day and other Dennis Lehane novels at University of Pennsylvania Libraries and at your favorite branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia
Read other reviews by Walter Giersbach at the Favorite Books and Book Review and find out about his fiction at Allotropic Lucubrations