Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

It was with great irony and chagrin that I began this book, only to find that it, too, opens with a prologue. After my minor rant about prologues in my last review and my smug feeling that an author of the caliber of Dennis Lehane would know better, there one was.

There was a difference, however. This prologue was marvelous and I was swept up in the story, told by Babe Ruth, of an impromptu baseball game between members of the Red Sox, White Sox and a Negro team. The language was, as always from Lehane, wonderful and the emotions compelling. There's the initial joy of playing baseball with some great players, followed by the tension of the major leaguers's pride being damaged, the racial perspective as the Negro players go from equals to submissive, and Babe Ruth's shame at the way the whole situation ends. This prologue could stand on its own as a short story. But did it need to be a prologue? I'll get to that later.

This is a story of America after the First World War, primarily in Boston, but also in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We follow the parallel stories of Luther Laurence, one of the Negro ballplayers in the prologue, and Aiden "Danny" Coughlin, a Boston policeman. Babe Ruth puts in a couple of minor appearances throughout the book as well. I loved the insight into a time before I was born from the points of view of characters I cared about. Somehow I never knew how hard conditions were such a short time before my own lifetime.

Luther, in love with Lila, is convinced to move to Tulsa by her and finds a whole different way of life than what he's been used to. Negros (and I'm using the term because that was what they were called back then) had fine houses and businesses. They were lawyers and doctors as well as domestic help. True, it was in a separate part of town from the whites, but it showed Luther that life could be richer than he'd imagined.

Danny is from a family of Irish Catholic police officers. His father is a captain on the Boston Police Force and his friends are policemen. He falls in love with Nora, a poor Irish immigrant whom his father found shivering and starving soon after she got off the boat and brought home to be cook and housekeeper.

Luther, feeling restless and hemmed in by being a husband with a pregnant wife, forced to conform to a way of life he's not sure he wants, gets involved with alcohol, drugs and prostitution. He has to leave town after committing murder and winds up in Boston, getting a job as houseman at Danny's father's house.

The tale of these two men, who become fast friends, is told against the backdrop of the political and social unrest of the times. There are Bolsheviks and anarchists who must be controlled, the Great Molasses Flood, and the Boston Police strike. I was most surprised by the conditions the BPD had to work under at that time. They were paid less than janitors for the city, worked 72 hour shifts, had little time off, and the stations were safety and health nightmares. And yet they were expected to live with this proudly because they had taken an oath to protect and serve.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Dennis Lehane is a master of storytelling and language and I enjoyed the experience of reading large sections of it. On the other hand, it was very long and there were times I got tired of reading it. In particular, there was one section in the middle of the book where I had to struggle to get through it. I did, however, derive some satisfaction from knowing that even Dennis Lehane has trouble with "the saggy middle" at times. I also was impatient to get through the ending of the book. While the violence of the Boston Police strike is the climax of the story, it didn't draw me in as much as other aspects of the book. If I hadn't been so close to the end, I might have stopped reading.

As always with Dennis Lehane, the world does not have purely happy endings. There are positive notes, but you're left with the feeling that life is hard and full of dark shadows. Moral choices have undesired consequences. His writing is real, so if you're looking for happily ever after, you won't find it here. But if you want a world and characters that will stay with you long after you've finished the book, you can't go wrong with The Given Day or any of his other works.

And about that prologue? I don't think it needed to be a prologue at all, especially since the book ends as it begins, with Babe Ruth telling his story as he arrives in New York after being traded to the Yankees. It probably should have been chapter one or the ending should have been an epilogue to balance things out.
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