Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Dennis Lehane's The Given Day


(No spoilers. I promise.)

Who said I can't read a 704 page book? 

I just finished it--Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, a novel of social history, predominately set in 1918-1919 post WWI Boston, rife with Irish life, labor and racial strife, and radical agitation. 

So what gets dealt with here: only, an overworked, exploited, underpaid police force; workers agitating for better living wages and humane working conditions; burgeoning unionism; baseball as it revolves around Babe Ruth, then playing for Boston and still pitching; radical movements of communists and anarchists; their countervail in the FBI; Boston's high municipal officials and their graft and corruption; a black protagonist on the run from a murder in Tulsa who winds up in Boston, his path crossing with the young Irish protagonist; gangsters and prohibition; the nascent union movement; black class differences emerging with an emerging black bourgeoisie; a police strike and how it is met with historical figures like Andrew J. Peters and Calvin Coolidge among others; seething racism intersecting with the paranoid reactions to radical agitation; terrorism; the Boston riots during the police strike; a disintegrating Irish Boston nuclear family set among class distinctions as well, resonant in the idea of the "lace curtain" Irish; a plague of Spanish Influenza killing and maiming as it goes; and much much more.

The novel is epic and panoramic, the prose of the omniscient narrator solid and steady, capturing the inner voice of the various characters as the narrative spotlight shifts from scene to scene on them, from varieties of Irish brogue to stilted pol speak to the high formed talk of the black and Irish bourgeoise to the raffish street talk of the lower classes. I'm reminded of Doctorow and Dreiser and as well of Walter Mosley in the unrelenting pace of the narrative moving unstoppably forward in its headlong muscular way built out of real figures and built on real events.

Lehane can get right inside mob fury and wild violence as human nature gets shown at its squalid, corrupt and violent worst, especially when the lid of social control via the police is lifted off society.

When the raging heat of humanity bursts its bounds, we are left in suspense  at what will happen, who will survive, who will die, who will be permanently maimed. In ways large and small, Lehane paints a portrait of bottomless evil talking its toll as it explodes out of the foreboding woven in increasingly brighter threads as the novel goes forward. And the evil resides in the street thugs, the fanatical terrorists, in those in low authority who abuse their small portion of power in murderous ways, in venal union executives who make and break promises that working men rely on, and in high officials who let suffering and riot go unheeded for the sake of their willful pride and for the sake of vindictiveness. Lehane's evident sympathy is with the put upon working men who are abused and exploited every which way.

The novel covers a vast range. The copious research that has gone into is evident. It makes history come alive and ties it lightly to our own moment in the novel's concerns with race, terrorism, the otherness of immigrants, political venality, pervasive corruption, family breakdown, and massive class inequality.  

The title The Given Day points to a big theme in the novel: the paradox of what is gifted or given to us by chance as a beneficence and how what seems our doom befalls us as if fated as contingency is a gathering storm that finally catches us in it when it does, on, so to say, the given day. 

I think that this book would be an excellent American novel to teach and learn in university--it may be too raw in its language for high school--from any number of perspectives and at any level of course. 

Finally I'm put in mind of the "debate," maybe controversy is more apt, between Tom Wolfe and his opposed threesome of Mailer, Updike and John Irving, ("the three stooges").  Part of the fulcrum of that debate was Wolfe's embrace and championing of a kind of broad brushed, muscular Balzacian social realism in the novel. He argued that  the "old bones" had marginalized themselves through their evasion of the fullness of social reality and the smallness of their vision, writing about one neurotic after another in the cases of Updike and Irving. I'm not taking sides in that debate but Lehane's novel could be an excellent Exhibit A for the kind of fiction for which Wolfe argued.

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