Thursday, November 6, 2008

Book Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

Amazon.com

Dennis Lehane is one of a handful of writers out there that I will go out and buy the hardcover because I can’t wait. I became a big fan reading Mystic River. It was a brilliantly written, character novel set in a tough, blue-collar Boston neighborhood. His earlier works, the Patrick Kenzie PI series are better than your average genre novels. Some of you are familiar with Gone, Baby, Gonewhich was recently made a Hollywood movie.

This time around he writes a historical novel set in 1918-19 Boston during the Influenza Epidemic, the “Red Scare” and the Boston Police Strike. It centres around two characters: a young Boston copper Danny Coughlin and young fugitive Luther Laurence, a black man in a racist time. Panoramic in scope, it also includes famous characters such as Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge and J. Edgar Hoover. (Read the Amazon blurb and listen to Dennis Lehane discuss the book The Given Day.)

I hate to say this, because I want to write positive reviews on this site but there were several things that gave me pause.

Firstly, the novel’s hero Danny Coughlin caused my suspension of disbelief to fall. Here’s the checklist: He’s good looking, tough to bullies, but kind hearted to the underprivileged. Despite the fact that every woman alive is in love with him, he chooses the scullery maid with a heart of gold for his affections. (And she’s no pushover, you see, she knows the real Danny. Unlike those phony society folks!) Oh, but he has weaknesses. Danny just can’t help but sleep with beautiful women. And that temper of his! If there’s an injustice, he is liable to blow, no matter if it's not the kind of behavior they expect in polite company… You can’t help but roll your eyes at the cardboard cut out.

When you write a historical novel you’re always going to run into trouble when applying today’s conventions and values onto the past. In The Given Day, we have the communist anarchist insurrection of 1918-19. Bombs are going off. There’s one at a police station that Danny survives and one at the house of the US Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in Washington. These terrorist incidents really did happen, and American authorities were, I think, reasonably concerned considering that Russia was overthrown by the communists in 1917. However, the Feds are made out as bug-eyed, paranoiacs.

Terrorism, bombs, overzealous authorities…hmmm are we seeing something that resembles our own times?

In a recent KQED in San Francisco (NPR) interview, Lehane said that through his writing, you could never guess who he votes for in real life. It’s a laughable statement, because I would bet my life savings that he isn’t pulling the lever for the Republicans.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Lehane is one of those people who believes that Bush and Congress got too carried away after 9-11. That the destruction of the WTC and blast at the Pentagon were one-off incidences, perpetrated by few kooks. Nothing to be afraid of, nothing to see here folks, move along. (If you look at the approval rating for Osama bin Laden in the Middle East, you might not think that.)

One can see the underlying message on terrorist issues during the novel. For example, the authorities who want to infiltrate the communist cells are scoffed at by Danny. Even though by a miracle he survived a bombing himself he still says: “The Reds don’t bother me much. They’re mostly harmless."

How many times after 9-11 was the statement, -They did this because they hate us for who we are- laughed off as a naïve assessment by hick Americans? My thought was always: Isn't it true? The same goes for the communists, didn’t they hate America for what it was? So I cringed, at the part when a federal officer gets a overly zealous during a speech and says, “… these cocksuckers hate the life we have” and Danny claps sarcastically when he’s finished.

Despite the racist times, Danny’s best buddy is Luther, a black man. OK, fair enough. Danny’s a hero after all. You can almost hear Lehane thinking: “Boy, if I lived back then, this is what I’d be like.”

Luther is a good character who you can’t help rooting for. At first, I was a bit wary about a white person writing the thoughts of a black man living 90 years ago. It’s interesting that Lehane did some writing for HBO’s The Wire, which was criticized because the writers were white guys writing about blacks. I have not seen the show, but it is highly regarded critically. So, I let it go. A good writer can write about who he wants.

I really enjoyed the Babe Ruth vignettes that were sprinkled throughout the novel. In a stream of consciousness manner we get the Babe drinking, whoring and hitting baseballs out of the park. Little is written about his days playing for the Red Sox.

Overall, I was disappointed because it was a letdown from Mystic River. I could never shake that the plot and message overtook the characters. It was painfully obvious that they were bent into shape to fit the vision. It’s still worth a read for those who enjoy a historical novel that takes you to a different time and place. Just watch out when it transports you back to 2008.

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