A war-fatigued nation confronts an overheated economy, a tangle of vengeful terrorist organizations, rising joblessness, and racial tension. It sure sounds contemporary but The Given Day, Dennis Lehane’s wildly ambitious new novel, is set in Boston toward the end of World War I.
Lehane is best known for “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone,” Boston-based police thrillers that double as morality tales even as they peer into the hearts of dysfunctional families and build on complex layers of honor.
But this time, in his eighth novel, Lehane dips back into the past. It’s an enthralling journey and one that reaffirms the imagination and narrative vigor of Lehane.
“The Given Day” mixes fact and fiction in epic fashion by swirling such historical figures as Babe Ruth, Communist author John Reed, J. Edgar Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge in with fictional characters. The primary focus of the book is the failed Boston police strike of 1919.
The secondary one is class warfare as depicted in baseball, union drives, and the gap between Boston Brahmins and the city’s largely Irish working class. Lehane effectively conjures an era when segregation ruled in the North, too – segregation by both race and class.
Characters like Ruth, whom Lehane conjures particularly vividly, and then-Boston Mayor Andrew Peters, help to frame the intertwined, quickening stories of Aiden “Danny” Coughlin, a Boston cop of storied Irish legacy, and Luther Laurence, a black man who flees his Tulsa home because of his involvement in a gangland murder.
Laurence winds up in Boston working for Thomas Coughlin, a Boston cop who, unlike his son Danny, values expedience more than principle. Rounding out the troubled Coughlin family are Danny’s brother Connor, a political opportunist, and Joe, the kid brother who idolizes Danny and supports him when the going gets tough.
And that it surely does, dogging Danny in his affair with the ill-starred Nora O’Shea (a slightly underdeveloped character – Lehane depicts men better than women here) and in his attempt to reconcile his belief in a police union with the political pressures brought to bear by his union-bashing father.
Danny and Luther are the good guys, though both are prone to violence and hatred.
Blame that on their situations: Danny’s battles with a legal system that can’t keep up with the demands of the turbulent times make him a pariah; Luther’s need to get out of town after he commits a crime against a low-life makes him an outcast, too. Watching these two mature and overcome the circumstances that try their souls is the trajectory of this book.
There are times when “The Given Day” soars.
Indeed, the start – a play-by-play account of a baseball game in southern Ohio that pits Babe Ruth and other white all-stars in a racist duel against an all-black team – is fantastically well-written. And the viewpoint is clear.
At its core is the notion of family. Here, Danny schools his little brother:
“Danny said, ‘You can have two families in this life, Joe, the one you’re born to and the one you build.’
“ ‘Two families,’ Joe said, eyeing him.
“He nodded. ‘Your first family is your blood family and you always be true to that. That means something. But there’s another family and that’s the kind you go out and find. Maybe even by accident sometimes. And they’re as much blood as your first family. Maybe more so, because they don’t have to look out for you and they don’t have to love you. They choose to.’ ”
There are the bad eggs, too, like Deacon Broscious, Luther’s oily Oklahoma nemesis, and his sidekick Smoke; Tessa Abruzze, the terrorist bombshell with whom Danny has an affair in Boston’s North End; and Eddie McKenna, Danny’s corrupt, brutal godfather.
All of these are memorable.
Lehane certainly knows how to spin a yarn, and even if “The Given Day” seems overstuffed – it’s hard to keep track of all the terrorist organizations, for one thing – its twists and turns keep it moving. Lehane also knows how to reimagine history, vividly dramatizing one of the darker episodes in this nation’s annals.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.