No one ever tapped Dennis Lehane for the throne of Great American Writer. He wrote serial detective stories and solid commercial fiction ranging from the impressive (Mystic River) to the painful (Shutter Island). This output left him firmly encamped in the guilty-pleasure category, where everyday prose glued to rousing drama can deliver a very handsome living.
But Lehane wasn't content with best-seller riches and four movie deals. Seems he wanted to prove he had chops, that he was worthy of VIP access to the higher floors of American literature. And with his seventh novel, The Given Day (William Morrow, 720 pp., $27.95), he most certainly has.
It's a sprawling, 700-page tale set in Boston during the chaotic times after World War I. Anarchists are blowing up police stations. Race riots—or, more accurately, massacres—are sparking across the country. The bitter first steps of the union movement lead many to believe America is about to turn commie, just like Russia. And the haves are doing their ruthless best to keep the have-nots from grabbing even a tiny bit more.
As labor leader Ralph Raphelson notes: "Big Money's gotten smart. They're framing the debate by taking ownership of the language. You're no longer a workingman fighting for his rights. You're Bolsheviki. You're a 'subversive.' Don't like the eighty-hour week? You're an anarchist. Only commies expect disability pay."
Into this firefight steps Danny Coughlin, beat cop and police department royalty, son of a powerful captain and nephew to a rogue lieutenant. Like any young buck, he's angling for his detective's shield. Then he's reluctantly sucked into the department's own union drive, hurling him toward a violent collision with his family.
OK, you've heard this classic Irish cop tale before. But Lehane is only using it as a framework for recasting the nation's formidable years from every vantage point possible. Let it be said the man delivers.
Danny's the everyday American—wed by tradition to familial duty but increasingly willing to trade it in for the promise of a better land. Confining him is patriarch Thomas, a noble and corrupt police captain attempting straddle worlds old and new. Adding boulders to the current is Uncle Eddie, a lieutenant whose munificent charm is matched only by his savagery. Like the nation itself, this is the family Danny must defend or flee.
Intertwined with the Coughlin family drama is Luther Laurence, a "colored" munitions factory worker deposed from his job by white men returning from war. If the European immigrants have it bad, Luther has it a whole lot worse. These are days when a black man can be strung up, shot or have his car stolen with near impunity. So when Luther runs afoul of a numbers king, he faces the same fight-or-flight predicament as Danny: stay with his pregnant wife or flee to a larger world where a black man can get dead right quick.
Lehane isn't really breaking new ground here. In a sense, many of his characters come from central casting. What he's doing is raising the elevation at which they appear. Danny isn't just the rebellious young cop. Thomas isn't merely the rigid captain with the soft underbelly. These are people drawn with endless hues, from bravery to vanity, naivety to viciousness. Think of it as commercial fiction for the thinking man. There's still a landmine a minute in the story line, but they're surrounded by characters who've been penetrated to their core.
It's as if Lehane took the standard cop drama and suddenly discovered a way to paint it with more brilliant truths. The good guy doesn't always win. The little guy usually gets his ass kicked. And in the end, no one really walks away happily ever after. They just feel lucky to be walking away at all.
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That clip is horrifying. It looks like postmortem makeup. Very uncanny valley.
AGGGHHHH that last picture!