Book Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

For a reader aspiring to write, The Given Day offers among the finest examples of how to write strong men. How to write relationships between strong men and weak. How to show authenticity when strong men are vulnerable. For the reader yearning for characters to grab them in the gut, draw them in and take them on the journey, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day offers all that. The time is the end of World War I, set primarily in Boston’s North End. The workingman is hungry and angry. Boston street cops want to unionize –– police hierarchy opposed. The men on patrol haven’t had a raise in over a decade, work some seventy hours a week and make less than a streetcar driver. The Given Day weaves a rich background steeped in factual history.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

If you are not familiar with Dennis Lehane, he wrote Gone, Baby, GoneMystic River, numerous other lauded books, and wrote/collaborated in or appeared in 2004, 2006 and 2008 episodes of The Wire. In my opinion the best of all the TV epics is The Wire –– better than the shocking, startling, smartly written and acted, Breaking Bad, which took my breath away at times, but likely couldn’t happen in real life, the way told. The Wire, with the cops, the kids and pols, happens every day across America.

The Given Day:

The main of the tale revolves around two men:

1)  Danny Coughlin is an Irish beat cop in an undesirable section of Boston, “Italian and poor,” and the son of a respected, powerful, and corrupt police captain. Danny, a man admired by his peers for his physical strength and integrity, loves hard, deep and wholly, which makes it all the more difficult to be who he is and live and work where he does. He is the godson of one of the most merciless men I’ve ever read, mean to the bone and the marrow within. There is something about Lt. Ed McKenna that exceeds the bad guys, real and fictional, that we all know or know of. He spills wickedness with his words and his eyes spear those he intends to inflict. McKenna is not a focus in The Given Day, but he is an unforgettable force. His wrath changes lives.

Joe, Danny’s much younger brother, still living at home with a disaffected mother and domineering father:

He’d [Danny] bring up women’s suffrage at the dinner table, talk about the latest debate over the length of a woman’s skirt, ask his father what he thought of the rise of Negro lynchings in the South, wonder aloud why it took the Catholic Church eighteen hundred years to decide Mary was a virgin. ~ The Given Day

That’s Danny Coughlin

2) Luther Laurence is a black man from Memphis who ventures to my city, Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the thriving Greenwood district, seeking a better life with the woman not yet his wife. He makes decisions rendering brutal outcomes. The outcomes have nothing to do with the “Tulsa riots,” or raping a white woman. He runs, and without intent, ends up in Boston.

The relationship between Danny and Luther, the white cop and the black man of the early 1900s, is one of “sir” and “suh,” humor and heartbreak, and respect for each other that Luther comes to later than Danny.

In a fascinating opening, Babe Ruth encounters Luther on a softball field, before Tulsa, before Boston, as the train carrying the Boston Red Sox is stalled on the tracks in need of repair, The team has some time for mischief. The Babe describes Luther:

…He [Luther] was all energy in the box, bouncing on his feet and his haunches, a whippet standing over the plate, trying to keep from busting out of his skin. And when he connected with the ball after two strikes, Ruth knew this nigra was going to fly, bet even he wasn’t prepared for how fast…

The right fielder missed the ball, scooped it from the grass and sent it “like he’d caught it sleeping with his daughter…

But the whippet, he was already standing on second. Standing tall. Never slid, never dove. Waltzed on in there like he was picking up the morning paper…

That’s Luther Laurence before life began dealing its harshest hand.

Do you know about ‘The Molasses Flood of 1919?’ I did not. As I read about a mammoth molasses tank exploding, two millions gallons spilling into the streets, rising in “fifty-foot waves,” “a firehouse hurled across a city square,” a quick online search proved the event true. The way Lehane describes the effect of this horror on the people, melds with historical accounts.

Imagine it. Not just an odd thing, but a tragic thing –– people dying, curled up on the streets and sidealks in boiling molasses, then hardened molasses. How does a city deal with that?

Prohibition of alcohol consumption was being amended to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, and molasses is used in the manufacture of rum. Plans were made by the tank owners to convert their East Cambridge plant from the production of rum over to (still legal) industrial alcohol. A final batch of molasses for rum production arrived in November 1918—the ill-fated shipment. The tank had been hastily constructed 3 years earlier…. Source: Celebrate Boston

Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane

Flies battled for pavement in swarms as dark and thick as candied apples…. ~ The Given Day

Then the question: How did the molasses bust out of the tank? Terrorism? In those days, the word “terrorism” was as rife as it is today. Street gangs? The “reds” –– “Bolsheviks?” Anarchists of other bents? Socialist immigrants? Terrorism lived in the North End neighborhood of Boston, and others nearby. By 1916, in real life, a Boston police station had been bombed by Italian anarchists. It was a supremely troubled time in our history.

The most memorable scene for me happened on a street with Danny receiving the beating of his life from more than one man, but significantly, a man who once considered him a “comrade” against “capitalist oppression.” Danny stumbles, drags, crawls a number of blocks away, and by chance, Luther walks up an alley and sees him in the middle of the street on his knees. The two have had a falling out some pages back.

“Hey, hey,” Luther said softly. “It’s me, Luther.”

Danny looked up at him, his face like something someone had tested hammers on….His lips were twice their normal size, Luther wanting to make a joke about it but feeling it was defintely the wrong time.

“So.” Danny raised a hand, as if to signal the start of a game. “Still mad at me?”

Well, that was something no one had managed to take away apparently –– the man’s ease with himself. Busted all to hell and kneeling in the middle of a shit hole street in shit hole Scollay Square, the man was chatting all casual-like, as if this sort of thing happened to him once a week.

The Given Day is full of weather: skies and days dark and light, rain and more rain, air that lay heavy on the weary, and the glow of street lamps, comforting and menacing.

I’ve mentioned splendid dialogue over and over, but the narrative flowing through the 700+ pages gives color in ways speakers cannot.

Danny said nothing. He tried to find solace in his surroundings. The North End had been his home until he was seven year old, before the Irish who’d laid its streets and the Jews who’d come after them had been displaced by Italians who populated it so densely that if a picture were taken of Napoli and another of Hanover Street, most would be hard-pressed to identify which had been taken in the United States…

…sharp air that smelled of chimney smoke and cooked lard. Old women waddled into the streets. Carts and horses made their way along the cobblestone….

In most tenements, hens roamed the hallways, goats shit in the stairwells, and sows nestled in torn newspaper and a dull rage of flies. Add an entrenched distrust of all things non-Italian, including the English language, and you had a society no Americano was ever going to comprehend.

Hens, goats and sows living in hallways in Boston at that time? As the book moved forward, and Danny walked the streets with his nightstick, I could feel it, smell it, hear it, see it.

Among the cast of characters are real-life public figures: John Hoover, Samuel Gompers, Calvin Coolidge as governor of Massachusetts, and others.

Lehane was interviewed in Writer’s Digest, October 2015 issue and asked this question:

“What inspired you to bring Babe Ruth into the story?”

He just walked into the book. He walked in early, and he was so great and so much fun. That was really the beginning of the modern celebrity, and I wanted run with that. I want to run through this incredible year that I think was one of the most exciting years in American history, September 1918 to September 1919, and Babe Ruth was in the middle of it all…. ~ Dennis Lehane


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1 comment for “Book Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

  1. Will Hart
    May 16, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    You made me buy this book. And another one. I love you. WH

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