This review originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Sunday October 12, 2008
Times Like These
Once in a while a book comes along that presents a vision of a disturbing past that bears queasy resemblance to our chaotic present. Dennis Lehane’s new novel “The Given Day” is one such book, a historical drama set during the Boston police strike of 1919. It melds the historical with the fictional so well that readers will be intrigued to guess what actually happened and what was invented. Most importantly, Lehane delivers this historical saga with style, wit, guts, and a bravado that elevates his work to the company of E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” or Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.”
Although it’s a full-figured book at over seven hundred pages, “The Given Day” is a fast, suspenseful read. Lehane, author of “Mystic River,” is known as a crime novelist, and it shows: The time frame is tight, with the events unfolding in a little over one year, while the cultural canvas is sprawling and epic. At the heart of the story are the bipolar characters of Danny Coughlin—a golden boy of his time, an Irish cop and the son of a police captain—and Luther Laurence, a talented but disadvantaged Black ballplayer who gets drawn into a life of crime early in the novel, who spends most of the story digging himself out. These two fictional characters bear the lion’s share of the drama, yet they also interact with historical figures such as Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, and J. Edgar Hoover.
The novel opens with an epic scene that echoes the beginning of Don Delillo’s much frostier “Underworld” (1997): During a mechanical delay on a train journey shuttling the two teams of the 1918 World Series, the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth wanders away from the station and happens onto a local Negro-league game. He asks to play, and is enjoying himself until several other players from the two teams wander over and turn it into an us-versus-them, white-versus-black game. Fearing the Negro league players will ultimately win and humble them, the best of the major league ballplayers cheat and fix the game, causing the black players to walk off in disgust. (This scene of cheating, coupled with a moment later in the novel when Babe Ruth witnesses ball players hanging out with gangsters, prefigures the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.)
One of the Black players is Luther Laurence, who subsequently loses his job at a munitions factory and heads to Tulsa, Oklahoma to find work. He gets married and fathers a child, but also falls in with a dangerous crime kingpin by the name of Deacon Broscious, and his life goes downhill. Ultimately he heads north to Boston, where he meets and becomes friends with Danny Coughlin.
The Irish cops of the novel are both heroic and despicable. One of the worst of the large cast of characters is Danny’s father’s corrupt chum, Eddie McKenna. Early in the story McKenna manipulates Danny to spy on his fellow officers and their efforts to organize, dangling the promise of a promotion. Danny is also sent undercover to spy on the activities of Bolshevik terrorists, who bomb police departments and churches. One of Danny’s ex-lovers is a key figure in a terrorist cell, and although he tells his superiors that most of the “Bolshies” are nothing more than talk, he has to atone for his past involvement with the murderous vamp.
Danny and Luther’s plotlines converge at Danny’s father’s house, where Luther lands a job after fleeing a murder in Tulsa. Luther befriends the Coughlin’s Irish housegirl, Nora O’Shea, who is in love with Danny. But the Danny/Nora love affair is not without its heartbreak and turmoil. Danny’s time as spy against his fellow officers has the opposite effect intended: he becomes a key figure in the nascent policemen’s union, which leads to the Boston police strike of 1919.
“The Given Day” climaxes with the strike, and what a climax it is. To understand the horror that unfolds, it’s important to realize the dark side of the post-Gilded Age: there was no social safety net to speak of, and the working class was underpaid and underewarded, causing intense resentment between the haves and the have-nots. With the police on strike, drunken mobs rule the city. Here Luther becomes the keen observer: “Luther heard terror-screams and the Jordan Marsh men kept firing and the hive ran al the way back to Scollay Square. Which was an uncaged zoo by now. Everyone drunk and howling up at the rain drops. Dazed burlesque girls stripped of their tassels wandering around with bare chests. Overturned touring cars and bonfires along the sidewalk. Headstones ripped from the Old Granary Burying Ground and propped against walls and fences. . . . . Two men in a bare-knuckle boxing match in the middle of Tremont Street while the bettors formed a ring around them and the blood and rain-streaked glass crunched under their feet. Four soldiers dragged an unconscious sailor to the bumper of one of the flipped cars and pissed on him as the crowd cheered. A woman appeared in an upper window and screamed for help. The crowd cheered her too before a hand clamped over her face and wrenched her back from the window. The crowd cheered some more” (621).
A mixture of tragedy and triumph follows the strike. None of the principal characters emerge unscathed. The appearance of Babe Ruth functions as a great preamble and postscript to the novel: at its end he’s traded to the Yankees, instigating Boston’s infamous “Curse of the Bambino,” but he enters Manhattan wide-eyed and optimistic, thinking the future is to be “A good decade. So it would be” (702). In retrospect, his blessing of New York has its own irony, in that we now know the excesses of the Roaring Twenties would culminate in Wall Street’s Black October of 1929 and usher in the Great Depression of the 1930s. With the recent economic collapse caused in part by corporate greed, fraud, and great disparities of wealth, Dennis Lehane has offered a vision of the past that reflects the present, which makes for a knockout novel.—Wiliam J. Cobb