Monday, August 21, 2006
By Dennis Lehane
Morrow. 232 pp. $24.95
The raw, surprising tales of passion and violence in Dennis Lehane's new collection remind us anew why he is one of the most interesting young writers in America today. Lehane first gained wide attention in 2001 with the publication of "Mystic River," his powerful story of murder and revenge in a working-class Boston neighborhood. "Mystic River" drew heavily on Lehane's roots in Boston's Dorchester community, where he was born in 1965 to two Irish immigrants. Soon after he started school, the nuns told his mother how much the boy loved reading, and she began taking him to the public library. Thus, not for the first time, a writer was born.
In the early 1990s, Lehane was a graduate writing student in Florida. He and his classmates were mostly churning out literary short stories, but he had grown up enjoying the work of Boston's Robert B. Parker, and one day, for a lark, he started a detective novel. The lark became "A Drink Before the War" (1994), which introduced Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, sometime lovers and partners in a Boston private investigations firm. It was the first of five Kenzie-Gennaro thrillers, all distinguished by dazzling prose and horrific violence. The Kenzie-Gennaro books were increasingly successful -- Bill Clinton was a fan -- and taken on their own terms, they were brilliant, but their carnage was such that they were not likely to attract a big, mainstream audience. Readers who admired Lehane's obvious gifts wondered if he shouldn't raise his sights.
He was wondering that, too, and as the new century began he put his series aside to write a novel about a tragedy in a blue-collar Boston neighborhood. Leaving a successful series was a gamble, but it paid off. For anyone who cares about good writing, to move from the Kenzie-Gennaro books to "Mystic River" is like exiting a funhouse into a world so real that it hurts. It's one of the best American novels of this young century, its excellence underscored by Clint Eastwood's Academy Award-winning film version in 2003.
After the triumph of "Mystic River," Lehane wrote a clever, deceptive little thriller, "Shutter Island" (2003), which he has called a homage to Gothic novels and B-movies, and he's at work on a long novel that will, in part, concern the Boston police strike of 1919. While we await its arrival, we have this vivid new collection, "Coronado" -- the title, like "El Dorado" or "Shangri-La," refers to a paradise that the losers in these stories can dream of but never attain. The collection is uneven, but nothing Lehane writes is without interest. Three of the stories are enjoyable but minor, two are substantial, and the play is an angry, violent, sometimes shocking piece that I would walk several miles to see performed.
Although all seven of Lehane's novels are set in or near Boston, three of these stories focus on the lives of aimless people in small towns in Texas, West Virginia and South Carolina. The first major story, "Running Out of Dog," which opens the volume, is classic white-trash noir. In Eden, S.C., Vietnam vet Elgin Bern works construction and carries on a torrid affair with a car dealer's wife. He also tries to keep track of his crazy, violent friend Blue, who has long worshiped the car dealer's wife from afar: "Elgin never bothered telling Blue that some women didn't want decency. Some women didn't want a nice guy. Some women, and some men too, wanted to get in bed, turn out the lights, and feast on each other like animals until it hurt to move." Blue is consoled by a job shooting wild dogs that are tarnishing the town's progressive image. In the end, some people are put down as heartlessly as the dogs.
In "Gone Down to Corpus," three West Texas boys decide to beat up a rich classmate who dropped a pass that caused them to lose a football game and their meager chances of winning college scholarships. Instead, finding no one at home, they trash the boy's house, only to have his younger sister arrive and complicate matters. The story doesn't go anywhere, but it's a chilling evocation of empty lives in an empty landscape. In the other major story, "Until Gwen," first published in the Atlantic in 2004, a career criminal picks up his son when the son is released from prison. The father demands a missing diamond. The son thinks the father murdered the son's girlfriend while trying to find the diamond, and it becomes clear that one of the men is going to kill the other. It's a tough little tale that Lehane originally dashed off for a crime anthology, but he didn't leave it there.
As Lehane explains in an introduction, his brother Gerry is an actor, and he decided to expand the two-person, father-and-son short story into a more ambitious two-act play, "Coronado," which was produced off-Broadway last year with Gerry as the no-good father. In the play, the story of the father and son is combined with those of two pairs of lovers who are also bent on homicide. It's a raw, passionate, mysterious piece, enhanced by sophisticated stage techniques and bitter humor. If you've never read Lehane, you probably should start with "Mystic River," but if you're already a fan, you'll savor this new glimpse into one of the most unpredictable minds in current American fiction.