The Given Day – Dennis Lehane (review)

Big, complex historical novels don’t faze me. Just the opposite. And who would I be to complain, having written six of them myself? My theory is that those who are unhappy with this novel are Lehane’s readers who came to it expecting his crime fiction. If that’s what you want and you have no interest in historical fiction, you are not the right reader for this novel.

Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane

Lehane takes on historical fiction at a full run. He sets this novel in post WWI Boston, where so much was going on that it put me in  mind of the collision of tectonic plates.  His characters — there are three primary ones and maybe a dozen secondary of importance — deal with internal conflicts (as of course, they must in any good story) set against big-ticket social changes, from the evolution of baseball into a high-stakes business,  the rise of unions in response to exploitation of stunning proportions, inner city poverty and crime and the spread of illness, the kind of racism we don’t like to think about any more and would like to forget entirely; the way [[Catholicism]] hog-tied a woman’s ability to set the course of her own life.

Ambitious, eh? Sounds like too much and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be. In fact at some point I’ll have to re-read this to figure out  how he managed to balance everything.

Lehane uses smaller events to provide structure and insight into the bigger issues — and in a way that moves the story along as a whole. For example, the novel opens and ends with [[Babe Ruth]] at a pivotal point in his career.  The team is traveling by train, gets stopped in the middle of nowhere by mechanical difficulties, and ends up in a pick-up baseball game with a team of black men who play in the evenings.  This is where the Babe (then still called Gidge) first comes across Luther, one of the three primary characters. It is also the first time he actually considers racism as anything but an abstract concept.

If you aren’t interested in baseball, you may falter in the first chapter or so — but hang in there. It is not the primary setting for the novel. Babe Ruth’s personal and professional history during this time –and the fleeting way he comes in contact with Luther — provide small islands that work like signposts.

The primary character is Danny Coughlin, a policeman in a family of men who are deeply embedded in the city’s political structure and the police department. At this point the Irish population has risen from stepped-upon immigrants to run Boston with a heavy hand. Danny’s father and his father’s closest friends, all born in Ireland, embody a system in the grips of monumental and frightening change.   The powerful are losing their hold on the workers and the poor, and they don’t like it. Danny, born into power, has made a place for himself among the Others. In the course of the novel he must chose between the extremes. This plays out on multiple levels, but most personally in  his relationship to Nora, an Irish immigrant who works in his family’s household.  If Danny wants Nora (which he does) he will have to openly reject his family’s values.  Before the novel opens he has decided he can’t make that sacrifice. How he changes his mind about her — about many things — is the driving force of this story.

It is through Danny’s eyes that we experience the worst of this period. The [[1918 influenza epidemic]], the mistreatment of immigrants and  working people (Italians were at the bottom of the food chain at this point in time), the  rage that finds its vent in a devastating riot, the rise of [[unionism]], the hysterics around Bolshevism — all this comes into play.

Some have criticized this novel for its complexity, but  that is the very nature of the time Lehane is writing about. Chaos cannot be calmed or it wouldn’t be chaos. To isolate one or two of the historical events of this novel and ignore the others would make it a less demanding read, but it would also rob it of most of its power.

If you’re reading this weblog at all, you probably are here because you like the Wilderness novels, which speaks to your interest in (or tolerance of) novels that are anything but minimalist.  You may love Lehane’s new novel as much as I did, for his ability to highlight intervowen individual stories in a way that brings one place and time into focus.