Friday, February 20, 2009

Do We All Think We Discovered Dennis Lehane?

I can't believe that it's been ten years since Dennis Lehane agreed to speak at the first annual Lee County Reading Festival. Lesa, Maryellen and I were so thrilled. My sister flew in from Massachusetts just so she could ask a snarky question about Whitey Bulger. (you have to be from Southie to get that) I saved the letter from him for years and may still have it in a folder somewhere in my desk.

When I began reading the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro series that starts with A Drink Before the War, I was a total mystery/cop/thriller reader. I still love those books but have broadened my world considerably. I can't tell you how impressed I was with Lehane's writing style, his depth of characterization, his politics that I thought shined through loud and clear. ( is it shines or shone?) It boggled my mind that someone so young, it seemed like he was barely out of college, could have developed such a deep appreciation of nuance, the complications of relationships, and the pain of injustice. Yes, they were mysteries but they were so much more. Think of Richard Price or another one of my favorites George Pelecanos. I recommended - still do - Lehane to every customer who walked in the door and many have come back to thank me.

All that is to say that I just finished The Given Day, Dennis's first historical novel which is garnering praise all across the board and is showing up on "must read" lists all over the professional journals. It definitely lived up to the hype and I can't wait to meet him again at our tenth annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival next month. This book is both nothing like his others and just like his others. It screams to be a movie. Look what Eastwood did with Mystic River.
This novel is first and foremost a sprawling historical centered around the Boston police strike, the result of a first attempt at unionizing a so-called service organization in America. It pits a family against each other in that Danny, a union activist, a free thinker, and perhaps I would call him the new 20th century man, is surrounded by old world thinking in the person of his dad, a tow the mark Irish Catholic police captain and a brother who's a district attorney.
Then there's the romance/class struggle angle in that Danny is in love with Nora, a young Irishwoman of unknown origin who was found by Capt. Coughlin, starving and beaten, and taken in by the family in a conflicting role as part maid, part family. To complicate matters she eventually becomes engaged to Danny's brother.

A parallel story involves a small time criminal, Luther Laurence, who gets in over his head with a dangerous crowd and flees a murder in Oklahoma for Boston where a young black man can find work and hide from a dubious past. He leaves behind a pregnant wife whose love could be his road to salvation if he can only bring himself to see it. Luther's and Danny's lives intersect in such a way that each is able to learn from the other and become better men because of their relationship.

There's so much going on in this book that it can seem overwhelming. Post Civil War racial inequality, the formation of the NAACP, the infuenza epidemic that knew no class or color lines, the post WW I distrust of the labor movement, the graft and corruption of the state and local governments are all there as seen through Danny's and Luther's eyes. I've read some criticism that the characters' motivations and depth weren't explored enough and that perhaps Mr. Lehane tried to put too much into The Given Day and I might even agree. The thing is, I don't care. How long has it been since you had a big, lusty 700 page book that you didn't want to put down? Yeah, I thought so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You mean we didn't?? I am so excited that he'll be here in another month. Do you have your outfit all picked out for EWTA?