By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 21, 2008
THE GIVEN DAY
By Dennis Lehane
Morrow. 704 pp. $27.95
Dennis Lehane is the preeminent contemporary chronicler of Boston generally and the Boston Irish specifically. In both respects he follows in the tradition of Edwin O'Connor ( The Last Hurrah, The Edge of Sadness) and George V. Higgins ( The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Cogan's Trade), though very much in his own street-wise, implacably honest style. Because many of his previous books have featured the private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, he often is pigeonholed (i.e., condescended to) by the literati as a "genre novelist," but as he left no doubt in his shattering Mystic River (2001), he deserves to be included among the most interesting and accomplished American novelists of any genre or category.
Now, in The Given Day, Lehane has done something brave and ambitious: He has written a historical novel that unquestionably is his grab for the brass ring, an effort to establish his credentials in literary as well as commercial terms. Immense in length and scope, it is set at the end of World War I, a time when "people were angry, people were shouting, people were dying in trenches and marching outside factories," and it culminates in one of the most traumatic events in Boston's history, the policemen's strike of 1919. Meticulously researched and rich in period detail, it pulls the reader so rapidly through its complex and interesting story that it's easy to lose sight of its shortcomings. But they are there, and they arise from the uneasy balance Lehane strikes (whether consciously or not) between the conventions of suspense fiction and his larger literary ambitions, as well as from his awkward attempt to connect a famous historical figure of the period to his fictional characters.
The novel is so densely populated that Lehane feels it necessary to provide a Cast of Characters at the outset, a list to which I resorted more than a few times, not merely to keep things straight but to distinguish between which characters are fictitious and which are historical. The latter fall into two groups: those connected to baseball, most notably Babe Ruth, and those with roles in government and law enforcement, among them a young agent from the Department of Justice named John Hoover and the governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge. If this suggests to you that Lehane is playing a variation on the theme made hugely popular three decades ago by E.L. Doctorow in Ragtime, your suspicions are correct, but there is none of Doctorow's jaunty insouciance to be found here: Lehane doesn't romanticize or fantasize upon his historical figures; indeed, with only a few exceptions, he excoriates them.
As readers of his previous books are aware, Lehane is at times as much social critic as novelist, especially with regard to matters of race and class. Though the central character of The Given Day is a Boston Irish cop named Danny Coughlin, an African American named Luther Laurence plays almost as important a role and in fact is given pride of place in the Cast of Characters. As in his fine first novel, A Drink Before the War (1994), Lehane writes with unstinting candor about race and does not shrink from employing the language of the streets. People in his fiction talk the way people really do talk, which means they don't always say nice things; readers who prefer that discussions of sensitive issues be sanitized must be warned that none of that is to be found in Lehane's fiction, though his sympathy for his black characters is abundant.
The novel opens with a somewhat peculiar prologue in which the central figure is Babe Ruth. The 1918 World Series is underway, but (as is historically accurate) it is played in only two separate home stands in Chicago and Boston according to War Department travel restrictions. The Cubs and Red Sox are on a train together when the engineer is forced to stop for repairs. Ruth wanders over to a field where black men are playing baseball -- one of them is Luther Laurence -- and eventually gets into the game. Things go well until other white players join in. A patently bad call is made in their favor, and Ruth reluctantly supports it. A bit later the black players walk off the field, disgusted and angry, leaving Ruth to contemplate the dishonesty to which he succumbed in order to placate his fellow whites.
This is the first of several set pieces sprinkled throughout the book in which Ruth is central. Ruth was of course still with the Red Sox -- he was sold to the Yankees in December 1919 -- and the idea seems to be to contrast his self-centered naiveté with the harsh realities of the world from which he is cocooned. It doesn't work. Nothing would have been lost by eliminating these sections, which never fully connect with the main narrative. Lehane is obviously entitled to do whatever he wants to within the pages of his book, but this one would have been stronger and more focused had he resisted the temptation to bring the Sultan of Swat into it.
The stories of Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence are plenty strong enough on their own. Danny is police department "royalty, the son of Captain Thomas Coughlin of Precinct 12 in South Boston and the godson of Special Squads Lieutenant Eddie McKenna." His father embodies two of the force's dominant strains, strength and graft. Danny has his father's strength but his inner core is kinder, more open to other people. He lives in the overwhelmingly Italian North End and is known there as "an Irish policeman who holds no prejudice against the Italians" and who "treat[s] everyone as a brother." He is in love with Nora O'Shea, an immigrant from Ireland whom his father brought into the family household as a domestic worker, but their romance is complicated by numerous tensions and misunderstandings.
Luther has come to Boston after fleeing Tulsa, where he killed a black gangster with whom he'd been involved in the numbers racket. Though the gangster is dead, his hatchetman, Smoke, survived the shootout and is out for revenge. Eventually, Luther is hired by Thomas Coughlin to work for the family as houseman. He befriends both Nora and Danny, setting up a racial triangle decidedly unusual for its time and place and not, in fact, entirely convincing; the relationship gives off a sense of today's sensibilities imposed on yesterday's realities, though the feelings among the three people are genuine and it is easy enough to respond to them.
As his friendship with Luther suggests, Danny is an uncommon Boston Irishman. He is loyal to his clan but not supinely so. When he thinks about his father as faithful to "the good," doubts come to his mind:
"The question remained, as it had throughout Danny's life, as to what exactly the good was. It had something to do with loyalty and something to do with the primacy of a man's honor. It was tied up in duty, and it assumed a tacit understanding of all the things about it that need never be spoken aloud. It was, purely of necessity, conciliatory to the Brahmins on the outside while remaining firmly anti-Protestant on the inside. It was anticolored, for it was taken as a given that the Irish, for all their struggles and all those still to come, were Northern European and undeniably white, white as last night's moon, and the idea had never been to seat every race at the table, just to make sure that the last chair would be saved for a Hibernian before the doors to the room were pulled shut. It was above all, as far as Danny understood it, committed to the idea that those who exemplified the good in public were allowed certain exemptions as to how they behaved in private."
What Danny sees in "the good" is self-serving hypocrisy, and finally he rebels against it. He takes the side of the regular policemen, who are brutally overworked and criminally underpaid, and becomes a leader in their union. Thinking about the just-ended war and the coming confrontation between striking cops and forces organized against them by the city and state, he reflects: "The poor fighting the poor. As they'd always done. As they were encouraged to. And it would never change. He finally realized that. It would never change." It will not surprise you to learn that Lehane's depiction of the powerful is venomous, especially his portrait of the police commissioner, Edwin Upton Curtis, a historical figure, and the aforementioned Eddie McKenna, a fictitious one. There is an especially powerful scene in which McKenna debases and brutalizes Luther, as withering an account of racial hatred and violence as I've read in years.
It all climaxes in those days in September 1919 when the police walk off the job and Boston collapses into anarchy. It's a powerful moment in history, and Lehane makes the most of it. So the advice here is, forget about Babe Ruth and concentrate on the real story of this flawed but heartfelt and moving book. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.