In “The Given Day” Dennis Lehane uses “fierce-terrible” as a two-fisted Irish modifier, an archaic way of signifying tremendous angry power. He not only links the term to comically quaint Irish brogues but also demonstrates, through the gut-wrenching force of this stunning historical novel, exactly what it means.
No more thinking of Mr. Lehane as an author of detective novels that make good movies (“Gone, Baby, Gone”) and tell devastatingly bleak Boston stories (“Mystic River”). He has written a majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre.
Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser surround Mr. Lehane’s choice of 1919 as the time for this expansive story. It is not simply the relatively unexplored eventfulness of that year that makes “The Given Day” so far reaching; it’s the relentless fierce-terrible nature of the turmoil on parade.
In 1919, as Mr. Lehane illustrates with such sweep and agility, World War I was ending, sending home soldiers who would reshape the labor market; the Spanish Influenza plague still raged; Bolsheviks and anarchists were branded the terrorists of their time; the Volstead Act was about to inaugurate Prohibition, creating whole new dimensions of caste and crime; and baseball players talking to game-fixers were laying the groundwork for the Black Sox scandal at the World Series. As for Boston, it was beset by an apocalyptic, groundbreaking police strike. Not content with that broad swath of material, and looking back to the East St. Louis Riot of 1917, Mr. Lehane also makes racial tensions a major part of his book’s enthralling drama.
Babe Ruth, who turns up throughout “The Given Day,” is Mr. Lehane’s unlikely fulcrum. The book begins in September 1918 with Ruth on a train, en route from Chicago to Boston in the midst of the World Series. The train breaks down in Ohio, leaving the white ballplayers with time to kill. Babe happens onto a group of black players and decides to engage them in some harmless, sporting fun.
The segregated black and white teams get along fine — until the blacks start winning. One particularly gifted black player, Luther Laurence, who will become one of this novel’s central characters, is good enough to get Babe’s goat. When Luther walks away from an easy catch and throws the game to avoid an ugly showdown, he creates the highly charged atmosphere in which “The Given Day” will unfold. In this one episode Mr. Lehane signals the questions of fairness, conscience, fame, power and tactical maneuvering that shape his panoramic story.
The book moves to Boston to meet the Coughlins, the lace-curtain Irish family of a proud police captain. The Coughlins would be straight out of central casting if Mr. Lehane, cementing his reputation as the bard of Irish Boston, did not draw them with such insight and intimate familiarity. The patriarch, Thomas Coughlin, casts a long shadow over all three of his sons, particularly Danny, the headstrong eldest. Danny has followed his father onto the police force but will develop an idea of lawfulness very different from his old man’s.
Early in the novel Danny is caught in the terrorist bombing of a station house. He finds out what it’s like to look up from the basement and see the sky. Deeply swayed by this experience, he is talked into spying on dissidents suspected of spreading radical ideas among Boston’s immigrants. And he is promised a promotion if he penetrates their ranks. “You don’t cotton to radicals, do you, Mr. Coughlin?” asks the vaguely menacing Justice Department lawyer John Hoover, who is soon to be known as J. Edgar Hoover and is one of the book’s occasional celebrity walk-ons. Though a drunken “Gene” O’Neill calls Babe Ruth “the Emperor Jones” here and gets slugged by Ruth for his trouble, most of the cameos do nothing to overshadow the book’s main action.
“The Given Day”— with a title that uses “given” to signify both specificity and gift — moves relatively mildly at first. It tethers Luther to a marriage in Tulsa, only to rupture that bond and send him fleeing to the supposed safety of Boston; it puts Luther in the Coughlins’ employ and creates an affectionate link between him and Nora, the former waif who winds up bewitching two Coughlin sons. It even introduces Luther to the burgeoning N.A.A.C.P., as the book’s characters create new families to replace their given ones. During all of this relative calm it’s almost possible to forget what Mr. Lehane can ignite when tempers mount, storms gather, and unimaginably savage violence ruptures any veneer of civilized society. Not for nothing are bomb-throwing anarchists at the heart of this rich, intricate story.
Once the cauldron boils over, “The Given Day” becomes a wrenchingly suspenseful book. It triggers grim certainty that Mr. Lehane’s tenderly drawn players will not survive the events that envelop them. Luther is goaded viciously by the bullying, rogue Lieutenant Eddie McKenna of the police, one of Mr. Lehane’s most ferocious creations and a terrifying villain in this story. The political landscape, in what becomes a deeply felt novel of political cowardice and corruption, is also filled with visions of indelible evil.
“The Given Day” creates a particularly chilling portrait of Boston’s police commissioner, Edwin Upton Curtis, as a dangerous has-been with no regard for the safety, dignity or vulnerability of his cops. When the strike erupts, turning Boston into “an uncaged zoo,” Mr. Lehane renders it with staggering fury.
The searing precision with which the book describes this devastation is one of its great strengths. (“Blackened storefronts. Overturned carts and overturned cars, all burnt. Two halves of one skirt in the gutter, wet and covered in soot.”) But that quiet horror, reminiscent as it is of the best of “Mystic River,” is by no means this book’s sole source of strength. “The Given Day” is a huge, impassioned, intensively researched book that brings history alive by grounding the present in the lessons of the past. When Mr. Lehane writes of “a man who wore his power like a white suit on a coal black night,” he could be writing about a distant time — or writing about his own.
October 27, 2008 by Ben