About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

#44 - The Given Day

My latest read, The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins, 2008), was awesome, but a darned tough one to review. That's not a bad thing -- just a reflection that this is a big, sweeping book with tons going on, and it's hard to capture all the essential points without wearing out my keyboard. This was the first book I'd read by this author, but I thought I knew what I was getting into. Janet Maslin's New York Times review describes the pre-Given Day Lehane as "an author of detective novels that make good movies and tell devastatingly bleak Boston stories" (referring to Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River). While The Given Day is both cinematic and bleak, it's also a lot more than that; it's a vivid story of family, identity, race, class, and social change. (Did I miss anything? Can you tell I really liked this book?)

The Given Day is set in Boston beginning in late 1918, as the Great War is winding down, and a virulent flu pandemic is ramping up. It tells the story of Danny Coughlin, the eldest son of an Irish-born police captain who, though a cop himself, has some doubts about the life and mileu his father inhabits:

"Thomas Coughlin alternated between a variety of demeanors and all coming and going with the speed of a spooked horse that it was easy to forget that they were all aspects of a man who was certain he was doing good. Thomas Coughlin was its servant. The good. Its salesman, its parade marshal, catcher of the dogs who nipped its ankles, pallbearer for its fallen friends, cajoler of its wavering allies.

"The question remained, as it had throughout Danny's life, as to what exactly the good was. It had something to do with loyalty and something to do with the primacy of a man's honor. It was tied up in duty, and it assumed a tacit understanding of all the things about it that need never be
spoken aloud. ... It was above all, as far as Danny understood it, committed to the idea that those who exemplified the good in public were allowed certain exemptions as to how they behaved in private."
Danny's independent streak, coupled with the sting of his recent breakup with long-time Coughlin family servant Nora Shea, have led him to move out of his family's comfortable home into a modest apartment in the Italian-dominated North End. In the novel's early chapters, two chance events occur that will irrevocably change Danny's life: a flu-carrying Army ship is quarantined in Boston harbor, and and unwed pregnant neighbor goes into labor while home alone. After Danny and his partner, Steve Coyle, are assigned to inspect and escort the infected ship, Steve contracts a case of the grippe, and miraculously survives ... only to find himself too weak to work, denied disability benefits, and thus penniless. Moved by his plight, Danny begins accompanying Steve to meetings of the embryonic police union, the Boston Social Club, and finds himself questioning the conventional wisdom about unions being radical and un-American. "Danny couldn't understand why most of the outlawed or targeted unions deserved their fate. Time and again what was renounced as treasonous rhetoric was merely a man standing before a crowd and demanding to be treated as a man."

At the same time, after saving his neighbor's life by taking her to a nearby clinic, Danny is befriended by her father, Federico, and embarks on a secret affair with Tessa herself. This ends abruptly when he learns that Federico and Tessa are not only married, but lead a particularly violent band of radical anarchists. Seizing their opportunity, Danny's father and godfather convince him to go undercover, and infiltrate Boston's underground leftist organizations. While Danny quickly notices that these organizations are far less dangerous than they're made out to be, and have far more in common with the Boston Social Club, these distinctions are lost on his superior officers, as evidenced by an outburst that may sound oddly familiar to 21st-century Americans:

"You say 'Bolsheviks' or 'Communists' like there are nuances here the rest of us are too thick to grasp. They're not different -- they're f-----g terrorists. Every last one. This country's heading for one hell of a showdown, Officer. We think that showdown will happen on May Day. That you won't be able to swing a cat without hitting some revolutionary with a bomb or a rifle. And if that occurs, this country will tear itself apart. Picture it -- the bodies of innocent Americans strewn all over our streets. Thousands of kids, mothers, workingmen. And for what? Because these
c---------s hate the life we have. Because it's better than theirs. Because we're better than them. We're richer, we're freer, we've got a lot of the best real estate in a world that's mostly desert or undrinkable ocean. But we don't hoard that, we share. Do they thank us for sharing? For welcoming them to our shores? No. They try to kill us.'"
As Danny's foundation begins to shift, a crack African-American baseball player named Luther Laurence independently sees his own life turn upside down. When his girlfriend Lila gets pregnant, the two flee Ohio for good jobs and prosperity in the oil boomtown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Lila's devout and appearance-conscious aunt hastily summons a preacher to set things right. The weight of sudden marriage and impending fatherhood sits heavily on Luther, though, and he gets caught up in the drinking, drugging, and gambling lifestyle of his friend Jessie Tell. When ruthless crime boss Deacon Broscious catches Jessie stealing from him, he blames Luther for not snitching, and sends the two men out with orders to collect from his debtors in grippe-afflicted households, Or Else. They comply, but at too high a price. When they return with their booty, a fight breaks out, and both Jessie and Deacon are killed. Luther escapes with his life, but bereft of Lila and their unborn baby, and ultimately makes his way to Boston.

And that's just setting the stage. Luther's and Danny's personal stories, along with those of several lesser actors (Danny's father, Captain Thomas Coughlin; brothers Connor and Joe; godfather Ed McKenna) and a smattering of famous guest stars (Babe Ruth, Eugene O'Neill, a young J. Edgar Hoover) play out against a backdrop of tumult and social upheaval. The Great War and Russian Revolution loom large in the public consciousness; a flu pandemic is sweeping the country; urban disaster takes a turn for the surreal when a molasses tank explodes , and then the police go on strike. "It was a crazy summer. no predicting it. Every time Babe thought he had a grip on it, it slipped free and went running off like a barnyard pig that smelled the ax." For a history buff, this is an interesting reminder that social unrest wasn't invented in the 1960s, and the Red Summer of 1919 predated the long hot summer by nearly half a century. And for a reader, it's intriguing to find a story set in an era that's not as popular with writers as some others, but is nonetheless chock-full of dramatic narrative potential. "It was like they were all walking through this crazy world, trying to keep pace but knowing they couldn't, they just couldn't. So a part of them waited for that world to come back up behind them on a second try and just roll right over them, send them -- finally -- on into the next one."

As you might expect of a book that's (partly) a book about a union and a strike, social class and the difficulty of defining one's place in a rapidly-changing world are recurring themes. Some of the tension arises when World War I veterans return from defending American ideals against the old Europe, only to find that those ideals don't really apply to them after all:
"In the war, they'd died by the millions. For nothing but real estate. And now, in the streets of the world, the same battle continued. Today, Boston. Tomorrow, someplace else. The poor fighting the poor. As they'd always done. As they were encouraged to. And it would never change. He finally realized that. It would never change. He looked up at the black sky, at the salted splay of dots. That's all they were. That, and nothing more. And if there was a God inveigled behind them, then He had lied. He'd promised the meek they would inherit the earth. They wouldn't. They'd only inherit the small piece they fertilized."
Closer to home, Danny reaches a similar conclusion about his father's crusade against the leftists. As he confesses to his priest after shooting Federico:

"I can't shake the feeling ... The feeling that we -- me and the guy I shot? -- we're just living in the same barrel? See? ... There's this big barrel of s--t. See? And it's -- ... --- where the ruling class and all the Haves don't live, right? It's where they f-----g throw every consequence they don't want to think about. And the idea -- ... -- the idea is, Father? The idea is that we're supposed to play nice and go away when they're done with us. Accept what they give us and drink it and eat it and clap for it and say, 'Mmmm, more, please. Thanks.' And Father, I gotta tell you, I've about had my f-----g fill.'"

Lehane also underscores another ugly truth about human nature: In times of turmoil, we often define who and where we are by defining and demonizing who we are not. Most often, as Luther is well aware, it's black Americans who find themselves the victims of such scapegoating:
"'Can't win against that type. If they say the sky's green and get their buddies to agree with them, say it a few more times until they believe it, how you going to fight that? ... Sky's green from then on. ... World ain't changing," Luther said. "Ain't ever going to, neither. They tell you the sky's green until you finally say, 'Okay, the sky's green.'? Then they own the sky, Danny, and everything underneath it."
This awareness, however, doesn't stop Luther from turning around and demonizing the leftists when for once, it's their group and not his that's being blamed for Boston's troubles. "For a few, strangely joyous hours, Luther didn't feel like a colored man, didn't even feel there was such a thing as color, only one thing above all others: He was an American." Nor, as Thomas Coughlin's reaction to the post-strike riots demonstrates, does the need for a scapegoat fade after you've climbed a good way up the ladder:
"His people, the faces nearest him as Irish as potatoes and drunken sentiment, all twisted into repulsive, barbaric masks of rage and self-pity. As if they'd a right to do this. As if this country owed them anything more than it had handed Thomas when he stepped off the boat, which is to say nothing but a fresh chance. ... [T]hey came here, one of the few cities in the world where their kind was given a fair shake. But did they act like Americans? Did they act with respect or gratitude? No. They acted like what they were -- the n----rs of Europe. How dare they? When this was over, it would take Thomas and good Irishmen like him another decade to undo all the damage this mob had done in two days. Damn you all, he thought as they continued to push them back. Damn you all for smearing our race yet again."

Ultimately, the story ends on a fitting note: neither happy, nor bleak, nor wholly ambiguous. In some respects, tremendous changes have happened, and lives will never again be the same. In others, they haven't changed half as much as we or Lehane's characters might have expected. As Thomas muses, beside Connor's hospital bed after the riots, "Maybe this, of all things, was the true price of family -- being unable to stop the pains of those you loved. Unable to suck it out of the blood, the heart, the head. You held them and named them and fed them and made your plans for them, never fully realizing that the world was always out there, waiting to apply its teeth." The world is indeed still waiting, fangs bared, for Danny and Luther ... and I'm still waiting (minus the fangs) for my next crack at a Lehane book. Definitely a keeper.

No comments:

Post a Comment