With the release of THE GIVEN DAY, we find out what Dennis Lehane has been doing since the publication of his classic MYSTIC RIVER in 2003 and the brilliant, under-appreciated SHUTTER ISLAND in 2004 (not to mention the stop-gap collection CORONADO: STORIES in 2006). There were rumors that Lehane was suffering from writer’s block; those who knew him said that he was carrying on research for what was intended to be a blockbuster, defining work. With the publication of his latest book, his first work of historical fiction, it is clear that the latter was correct.
At over 700 pages, THE GIVEN DAY is a sprawling tale of the city of Boston in the closing days of World War I, as chaotic as the times and locale it attempts to describe. Romance, violence, racial politics, socialism, corruption and a Boston Red Sox player named Babe Ruth all rear their head here, along with gratuitous shots at Calvin Coolidge and a Department of Justice attorney named John Hoover. Although not the mystery, thriller or suspense novel that has made Lehane a household name (at least in some neighborhoods), THE GIVEN DAY contains so many flashes of brilliance that one can almost forgive him for deserting his date at the dance and taking up with someone else with similar looks but nicer clothes.
This is, roughly, the story of two very different men whose paths intersect in 1918 Boston. Danny Coughlin is a beat cop, the son of a powerful and marginally corrupt police captain who does not control the city but certainly has a hand in guiding it. Great things are predicted for Coughlin, given not only his family connections but also his own natural powers of persuasiveness. He has weaknesses, however, not the least of which is his love for Nora O’Shea, a shanty Irish immigrant who works as a servant girl in his parents’ home.
As the book begins, Coughlin has broken off his affair with Nora, an act he bitterly regrets, all the more so when his younger brother begins taking up with her. In the meantime, Coughlin is tasked with infiltrating the postwar union movement with the aim of bringing to heal the violent radicals who aim to steer the movement to their own ends. He finds himself drawn in, however, not by Marxist ideology but rather by the legitimate complaints of the rank and file of the Boston police force, who are underpaid in every conceivable sense while being charged with an impossible job. Coughlin’s gradual involvement in union politics brings him into conflict with his father and, more importantly, with his father’s allies, the men who quietly control the city and who see the roiling labor unrest as a sign of violent things to come. As Boston moves inexorably toward a police strike, Danny is caught up in turmoil on several fronts; no matter how things end, he knows his life will be forever changed.
Coughlin’s one true friend, however improbably, is a black man named Luther Lawrence. A former resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lawrence is on the run from a violent confrontation in a saloon that has necessitated his relocation to Boston and the abandonment, hopefully temporary, of his wife and unborn child. He obtains employment as a driver for Coughlin’s parents and forms a friendship with Nora and, through her, an even deeper one with Coughlin. While somewhat clichéd, the relationship between Lawrence and Coughlin is one of the lynchpins of THE GIVEN DAY. Lawrence is by far the most interesting character in a narrative overflowing with them, a good if flawed man in a place and time that is at best difficult. Many of the novel’s events turn upon Lawrence’s actions, even as, from the standpoint of the times, he has the least power of any of the characters. The impetus that he gives to the endings --- one in Boston, in the midst of a riot, the other in a final confrontation in Tulsa --- are unforgettable.
THE GIVEN DAY would have benefited from fewer union speeches and more scenes such as the Coughlin family Christmas dinner and Luther’s whirlwind engagement and marriage. Fascinating characters are introduced and forgotten within a sentence or two; ones who are less so reappear with teeth-grinding regularity. This is a book that should be read for its high moments and, like all of us, forgiven for its trespasses.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011