Dennis Lehane’s Dirty Water
Some places get under your skin and some places get into your blood, but to be fair, the same could be said of people and poisons.
I have moved around so many times, including another 2,000 mile jaunt just last month, that it amazes me that anyone can stay in one place and keep writing about the same mean streets on which they were raised, fictionalizing the same heroes and villains that occupy some very personal cages in their own minds.
That’s not to say that I don’t admire those who do so. And sometimes if we’re lucky, a writer will rise even above their own ambitions to create something bigger than the borders that it strives to capture.
Take Boston, for example. One of America’s great cities, a shining jewel of the East Coast, and home to a plethora of crime writers, not the least of which is Robert B. Parker, to whom we wished a happy 76th birthday just last month. The unsentimental city by the River Charles also sprouted The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, and the magnum opus by the recently belated David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, among a multitude of others. It’s a hell of a place. It’s just not for me. I left Massachusetts the way the Russians left Afghanistan: heavily armed, head revolving like Regan MacNeil anticipating an ambush, and overjoyed to get the hell out of town.
But never let it be said I claimed that Boston doesn’t have its merits because above all else, the city claims Dennis Lehane as its native son. The next trick will be to see if Lehane has truly leapt permanently out of the realm of crime fiction, as the New York Times and others are trumpeting even as I write. (Shh. Here’s a secret. It’s all literature. Ask Ian. He’ll tell you.)
I admit that I came into Lehane’s books backwards. When Mystic River hit screens in 2003, I was living on the south side of the Thames, feeling very pleasantly cut off from the culture of my own country, but still absorbing as much cheap paperback crime fiction as I could get my poverty-stricken hands on, and ended up with the novel for the sheer dumb reason that my borough library had a copy on the shelves.
After consuming Lehane’s discordant diversion along with many pints (“Damn. This is pretty good for a throwaway paperback,” I recall mumbling to myself at the pub), I scoured the city for copies of his equally dark detective series starring Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro (both equally compelling characters, by the way, for those of you who equate the series with a talented but diminutive Affleck brother). The series is marked by stories that are as compelling and sad as their unusually evocative titles, like Gone, Baby, Gone and A Drink Before The War. Through his thirties, Lehane doled out five books about the detectives and their doomed relationship and then something funny happened. Lehane stopped writing what his publishers wanted him to produce and started thinking about what he really wanted to write.
I think there have been a few false starts, but they’ve been artistic works that would be leaps forward for anybody else. I’ll admit I don’t care much for Shutter Island and I still think the fact that it was so quickly snapped up for cinematic production is no testament to its literary heft, especially in the wake of Oscar statuettes for its predecessor. Lehane’s 2006 collection of short stories, Coronado, contains some terrific work, not least the ugly post-prison tale “Until Gwen,” but I still wonder if it was released as filler to keep brand Lehane in the public eye until something better came along. No lie; it’s here.
A few months ago, I got a mysterious box in the mail with all the other paperback ARCs and other odds and ends that fill up my in-basket on a daily basis. What kind of advance copy comes in its own box, complete with a 1919 map of Boston; copies of the city’s strident headlines that sound as horrified about the impending police strike as modern-day tabloids do about, well, everything; a concise biography of Calvin Coolidge; and Babe Ruth’s Red Sox card? At least this cornucopia of bizarre items was fair warning to brace myself for The Given Day. I’d call it the writer’s magnum opus if the boy from Dorchester weren’t threatening to craft a sequel, set in the "Roaring '20s," that could easily be as good as this one.
I don’t know if The Given Day will be taught in schools someday, mostly because it’s too long to digest quickly, too rich to telescope, and well, at the rate we’re going it wouldn’t surprise me if we evolve to lose the ability to read anything more consequential than the average headline. That said, it definitely ought to be held up as an example of the finest kind of literary ambition. You’re going to hear a lot of E.L. Doctorow comparisons in the coming weeks but Lehane’s accomplishment in The Given Day has more in common with his Bostonian brethren Herman Melville, and the latter’s epic tale of man struggling to triumph over his own worst nature. Drawing on his father’s fierce pro-unionist worldview and using the city’s great tragedies from the last century as its touchstones, the book proves that Lehane is capable of capturing far more than what he sees out his windows.
The novel centers its focus on two men and through their eyes Lehane takes a very long hard look at the fierce dichotomy between idealism and experience. Our hero, if you can call him that, is Boston beat cop Danny Coughlin, the son of Captain Thomas Couglin, the brother of the assistant D.A., and godson to a vicious, bent lieutenant named Eddie O’Shea. Danny is stubborn, determined and ambitious (and no, they’re not always the same thing), as proven by deeds like his initial assignment to quarantine a ship full of dead men, the crew wracked by the raging flu epidemic rocking the country in 1918.
“Somebody had to do it, Dad,” Danny says to his father.
“Not a Coughlin,” says the old man. “Not you. You weren’t raised to volunteer for suicide missions.”
“To protect and serve,” says the prodigal son.
Even more interesting than Lehane’s two-fisted cop is Danny’s alternate, Luther Laurence, who’s introduced in a weird but elegant prologue that finds the former minor-leaguer and soon-to-be numbers runner positioned in a pick-up game of baseball against a future legend. "Ya’ll ain’t gonna believe this, but that there is Babe Ruth running towards us like a fat motherfucking freight train,” says one of Luther’s teammates.
Ruth’s story is weaved between those of Danny and Luther and while it makes a deft literary addition to the novel, Lehane could have easily stuck to the tale at hand and not lost anything in the telling. But it’s hard to make too many complaints about such a ferocious piece of storytelling. Danny gets the lion’s share of the book as he’s tasked to infiltrate the Bolshevik movement that threatens to burn Boston to the ground, complete with bombings, riots and wicked subterfuge.
Luther, meanwhile, gets to carry the storyline that veers closer to the author’s bullet-riddled roots. It’s strange because he’s the better man at heart -- as his wife Lila observes, “…what made him wild was the same thing that made him kind -- he loved the world. Loved it the way you loved an apple so sweet you had to keep taking bites from it. Loved it whether it loved him back or not.” But he’s also the man capable of gunning down Oklahoma gangster Deacon Skinner Broscious and all of his thugs after his buddy Jessie Tell is murdered over a bad debt.
It ends up being a strange arc for these two. Luther flees to Boston and tries to indulge his own worst instincts, especially under the violent threats inflicted on him by Eddie O’Shea, but finds new courage under the tutelage of Isiah and Yvette Giddreaux, who head up the incipient Boston chapter of the NAACP. It’s Danny who ends up being the agent of change as an articulate leader of the simmering police union movement, even as his defense of the brotherhood in the face of unfair wages and criminal management threatens to drive him crazy. He’s a man torn between, as one of Danny’s comrades observes soon before the conflagration erupts, between keeping the peace and ending it.
“He looked up at the black sky, at the salted splat of dots,” Lehane writes. “That’s all they were. That, and nothing more. And if there was a God inveigled behind them then He had lied. He’d promised the meek they would inherit the earth. They wouldn’t. They’d only inherit the small piece they fertilized. That was the joke.”
The failure you’ll find in reviews of The Given Day is that given the limitations of the form, it’s hard to take it all in. It is after all, at 720 pages, a big damn book, one that encompasses governmental fear mongering, a fragile economy, a shamefully oppressed workforce, and the very real threat of chaos erupting in the streets. But if you can take the book in, wrap your brain around the city that was and the metropolis it became, and embrace those formidable parallels between Danny’s time and our own, you’re in for a hell of a surprise.