Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane - Book Review

With The Given Day Dennis Lehane steps into the world of major American novelist. Set in the Boston of the 1918 influenza epidemic, emerging labor movement, and Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox, the story follows a cast of characters reaching across barriers of social, ethnic, and racial separation to weave a story of depth and intricacy. I've followed Lehane for about a decade through a delightful series of genre mysteries set in Boston to his much more ambitious efforts in Mystic River and Shutter Island, soon to be a major movie. The Given Day takes on more challenging themes for both the author and the reader. Written with compassion that never hides the bitter violence, racism, and anti-red paranoia of the era, the book examines its characters and their lives as they take on the challenge of living and learning to become more human.

The novel opens with an arresting set-piece featuring Babe Ruth and his Boston Red Sox whose train is stopped along the tracks in Ohio. Ruth debarks and soon hears the sound of a ball game. He walks toward the sound to discover a group of black men skillfully engaged in a high level game. He joins them in his own boyish fashion, only to discover that their skills at least approach his. Other members of the Sox join in and soon the game becomes tense and nasty as the Sox realize they need to cheat to beat the local black men. All sense of camaraderie and connectedness growing from love of the game disappears as the Red Sox's racism destroys any possibility of overcoming barriers.
            Dennis Lehane
Cut to Boston in the period just before the end of World War I. Officer Danny Coughlin, of the Boston Police Department and son of Captain Tom Coughlin, is detailed to ensure the quarantine of returning soldiers suffering from influenza. The flu spreads across the city and then the country, killing millions as labor strife in Boston increases because the police have been denied any pay increases or benefits since 1903. Into this rich soup of fictional characters come the historical mayor of Boston and police commissioner as well as the likes of Governor Calvin Coolidge, John Hoover, a number of labor organizers, and, running through the novel, Babe Ruth seeking a raise from the Red Sox and confronting his own confusion about the racial, social, and labor strife surrounding him.

The intersecting lives of the Coughlin family and Luther Laurence, one of the baseball players in the opening baseball sequence in the red-baiting and racist environment of post-war Boston create a tense and enthralling reading environment while taking on serious issues still confronting contemporary society. The theme of terrorism is seen in the anti-union and anarchist scare just after the first world war as a strangely wrong FBI, well BI since it hadn't been renamed yet, agent named John Hoover shows up. One of the interesting elements of this intriguing and excellent novel is the appearance of real historical characters in well researched appearances true to their historical reality. In many ways I found The Given Day to be reminiscent of the works of Don DeLillo's Underworld, although much more easily accessible.

With The Given Day, Dennis Lehane has stepped up into the world of serious novelists. He sustains a convoluted and often violent story through over 700 pages of carefully wrought text while grappling with some of the central issues still beleaguering the country today. Of particular interest to me was Lehane's skill at capturing the demagoguery of the race and red-baiting of the era, used to maintain the power and control of the corrupt Irish police and Boston Brahmin city fathers. Their willingness to use any strategy to ensure their own control was as frightening in retrospect as it is today.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane is published by Harper-Collins and is available through all the usual outlets and as an e-book. Support your local independent bookstore.