Dennis Lehane's epic traces a pivotal Boston strike
The problem with catching literary lightning, as Dennis Lehane did with Mystic River, is, how do you follow it? Now that he has done so, and even surpassed himself, with his deeply moving historical novel The Given Day, the problem falls to readers to find something—anything—that doesn't pale in comparison once they've closed the covers on this 720-page masterpiece. Quite simply, The Given Day is about as close to the great American novel as we're likely to read until . . . well, until Lehane writes another.
If Mystic River was a perfectly controlled roller coaster ride, The Given Day is an entire amusement park of themes, subjects, subplots, set pieces, real and fictional characters, and good old midnight-oil-burning storytelling set during the year leading up to the 1919 Boston police strike. It's a year in which Danny Coughlin, son of police legend Capt. Thomas Coughlin, will come to lead the strikers in their struggle for a living wage. It's a year in which Luther Laurence, a displaced black munitions worker in Capt. Coughlin's employ, will discover that honor knows no color. It's a year in which America will squarely face both the bombings of Bolsheviks bent on igniting a worker's revolution and the burgeoning FBI under a youngJ. Edgar Hoover, whose war on terrorism will not be constrained by the Constitution.
Babe Ruth, who became America's first true sports celebrity during his last year with the Red Sox, serves as our Falstaffian guide. Along the way, Lehane vividly depicts the apocalyptic horrors of the 1918 flu pandemic, the unimaginable-but-true Boston Molasses Disaster, and the police strike itself, a heartbreaking Pyrrhic victory that would change the course of American unionism.
Lehane, the son of Irish immigrants who grew up in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, had a personal interest in the historic strike. "I'm a son of a union man, and I wrote this book in some respects to say, somehow in the last 20 years in this country, we've become pretty anti-union. When Wal-Mart can thrive and people shrug, we've made a real mistake," he says. "I wanted to say hey, remember the people who gave us the weekend? Who gave us the good old eight-hour day and the 40-hour week and governed child labor? Those people matter, and the concepts matter. But big business would be very happy if they went away, and always have been."
Lehane wrestled with the ambitious scope of The Given Day for four years, offering in the meantime appetizers like Shutter Island and the short story collection Coronado to readers hungry for a full-course feast. "It took a long time, and I think I regretted coming up with the idea through 90 percent of the writing of the book. This is one time where I thought on a pretty consistent basis, what the hell did I do this for?" he admits. "When I started to tell this story and realized I couldn't exactly start in September of 1919, I had to back up a little bit. And as I did, I kept saying oh, I can't pass up that event, and I can't pass up that event, and lo and behold, I ended up back a year before. Because what gradually took hold in me was this fascination with this year, this one 12-month period in American history when you had to believe the sky was falling."
Tying so many narrative threads together, especially for a writer like Lehane who prefers to let the plot find him, led him into "the valley of darkness" where the moral ground becomes slippery.
"When I went into the Boston police strike, what came up time and time again were the questions," he says. "Yes, they had the right to strike; certainly they were aggrieved. They were getting ass-f-----ed, there's no other way to put it. At the same time, do you really want to live in a country where the police force can walk off the job? Because what happened in Boston was disastrous. With that, I felt very good, because usually when I feel I don't have the answer is when the best drama is going to happen."
As the writing progressed, Lehane began to notice strange similarities between the era of The Given Day and the current one. "I didn't set out to write a book with parallels; they just sort of happened," he says. "A lot of it was gift-wrapped for me by history. I was just writing along and it was, oh wow, isn't that interesting?" In fact, he decided to cut one 30-page descriptive passage about the molasses flood, which was initially (and wrongly) blamed on radicals, when he discovered that most of the victims were firefighters. "You just look at it and it was a very, very tiny baby 9/11, so I cut it," he says. "I was like, why don't you just hold up a sign that says allegory on it, you know?"
But there is no disguising the author's underlying fury at the state of the nation, which he sees as the bitter fruit of the ongoing struggle between the haves and the have-nots.
"Is this book enraged at the politic, or the state of the politic? Yes, without a doubt. I think I'm icily pissed off at what I see as a battle as old as time. What the haves understand, and what the institutions understand, is how to win this battle, because they've been taught very well. But they lose every now and then. The Boston police strike effectively killed the union movement in this country for several years, but when it came back, it came back twice as strong."
Although he originally intended The Given Day to be the start of a trilogy, Lehane admits it's too soon to know what will catch his interest next.
"What slows me down now is, I keep raising the internal bar," he says. "I'm not setting the standard for anybody else but myself, but that standard has to be met."
Jay MacDonald writes from molasses-free Austin, Texas.