In ‘The Given Day,’ Lehane breathes immediacy, vitality into the Boston of 1919

December 27, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 27, 2012

Before I was given a copy of The Given Day, along with what was effectively a command to read the book in short order, I’d never laid eyes on a Dennis Lehane tale before.

Which isn’t to say that I did not know of or respect this American novelist. I saw and greatly admired Mystic River, the movie based on a 2001 Lehane work, when it was released to significant acclaim in 2003. Still, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I even cracked the spine of one of his novels.

The bulk of The Given Day transpires in Boston between mid-1918 and late 1919. It is largely the story of two men. One is Danny Coughlin, a massive, strong-willed 27-year-old policeman whose father is an Irish immigrant who has risen to prominence and a captaincy in the Boston police department. The other is Luther Laurence, a slim, fleet-of-foot handyman, also strong-willed, whose father abandoned his son and wife to poverty.

Although most of this 2008 novel is told from Coughlin’s and Laurence’s perspectives, a number of interstices present the viewpoint of one George Herman Ruth, the baseball immortal better known to fans as the Babe. A handful of relatively short passages put us inside the minds of other key characters, notably Coughlin’s father as well as Danny’s slightly older and much younger brothers, Connor and Joe, respectively; and Laurence’s wife.

Ruth meets Connor Coughlin and Danny Coughlin separately, but these encounters are essentially incidental to the plot. The ball player has two run-ins with Laurence, also mostly incidental to the main plot. However, the first of these meetings takes place as part of an episode that presents a gripping metaphor for race relations in America for much of this nation’s history. (Race relations seems too weak a phrase for a segregated system in which rights and wealth were largely reserved for Caucasians; please feel free to suggest more aptly worded sentences in the comment section below.)

The majority of The Given Day documents the personal and societal forces that led up to the evidently disastrous Boston police strike of 1919. (I believe this event took place in September of that year.) Lehane’s sympathies are clearly with not just the police labor union but with other unions, yet he rarely reduces issues to black and white.

In his telling, the policemen — and they were all men then, of course — were essentially forced to take radical steps because of the parsimony of Boston’s leadership. Police officers were required to work extended hours and to spend three nights a week on call, sleeping in precinct houses that were filthy and ridden with vermin. They never received compensation for working overtime. The force went for years without raises, despite promises of fair treatment by Boston officials. Officers who put their lives on the line found themselves unable to provide for their families even as other personnel, such as trolley car operators, made more, worked less and had been awarded raises more recently.

One of the book’s few out-and-out villains is a petty, vengeful police commissioner who sees compromise with his aggrieved work force as a black mark on his personal honor. The commissioner’s adding insult to injury at a key moment helps convince 1,400 officers to walk off the job.

Most of the other characters who come off poorly in the book seem deceived (self- or otherwise) or simply resistant to change, whether out of loyalty to tradition or fear of novelty, rather than actually evil. And some characters find their outlooks changing, often but not always for the better.

Lehane’s great achievement in The Given Day is that he gives immediacy and vitality to the Boston of nearly a century ago. Some of the issues and situations are different today: America’s archenemy is no longer Communism; racial discrimination is now much subtler and weaker than it was even two or three decades ago. Still, Lehane’s characters utter rhetoric that seems familiar without sounding tired.

At one point, a character is sent on an undercover mission to compromise leftists, including not just unionists but Communists, socialists and anarchists. Lehane indicates that many members of these groups harbored anti-capitalist sentiments, but only a few were outright anti-American, and even fewer were inclined to outright terrorism. Most of those spouting anti-capitalist rhetoric, Lehane tells us, would be hard-pressed to organize their way out of a wet paper bag.

Laurence’s first contact with the Coughlin household comes when he takes a job as houseman there. This passage describes some of his early experiences in that role.

Once Joe had discovered Luther had played some baseball in his time, the after-school hours became games of catch and pitching and fielding instruction in the Coughlins’ small backyard. Dusk coincided with the end of Luther’s shift, so the final three hours of his workday were spent mostly at play, a situation Captain Coughlin had immediately approved. “If it keeps the boy out of his mother’s hair, I’d let you field a team should you ask, Mr. Laurence.”

Joe wasn’t a natural athlete, but he had heart and he listened well for a child his age. Luther showed him how to drop his knee when he fielded grounders and how to follow through on both his throws and the swings of his bat. He taught him to spread and then plant his feet beneath a pop-up and to never catch it below his head. He tried to teach him how to pitch, but the boy didn’t have the arm for it, nor the patience. He just wanted to hit and hit big. So Luther found one more thing to blame Baby Ruth for — turning the game into a smash-ball affair, a circus spectacle, making every white kid in Boston think it was about ooohs and aaahs and the cheap soaring of an ill-timed dinger.

Except for the morning hour with Mrs. Coughlin and the late-day hours with Joe, Luther spent most of his workday with [the maid] Nora O’Shea.

“And how do you like it so far?”

“Doesn’t seem much for me to do.”

“Would you like some of my work, then?”

“Truth? Yeah. I drive her to and from church. I bring her breakfast. I wax the car. I shine the captain’s and Mr. Connor’s shoes and brush their suits. Sometimes I polish the captain’s medals for dress occasions. Sundays, I serve the captain and his friends drinks in the study. Rest of the time, I dust what don’t need to be dusted, tidy what’s already tidy, and sweep a bunch of clean floors. Cut some wood, shovel some coal, stoke a small furnace. I mean, what’s that all take? Two hours? Rest of the day I spend trying to look busy till either you or Mr. Joe get home. I don’t even know why they hired me.”

She put a hand lightly on his arm. “All the best families have one.”

“A colored?”

Nora nodded, her eyes bright. “In this part of the neighborhood. If the Coughlins didn’t hire you, they’d have to explain why.”

“Why what? Why they haven’t updated to electric?”

“Why they can’t keep up appearances.” They climbed East Broadway toward City Point. “The Irish up here remind me of the English back home, they do. Lace curtains on the widows and trousers tucked into their boots, sure, as if they know from work.”

“Up here maybe,” Luther said. “Rest of this neighborhood…”

“What?”

He shrugged.

“No, what?” She tugged his arm.

He looked down at her hand. “That thing you doing now? You don’t ever do that in the rest of this neighborhood. Please.”

“Ah.”

“Like to get us both killed. Ain’t any lace curtains part of that, I’ll tell you what.”

The time span covered by this book appears to have been an eventful one, both in Boston and much of the rest of the nation. The Boston police strike was a sequel to civil unrest elsewhere in North America, due either to union agitation or racial clashes. It also followed the demobilization of troops that had fought in World War I, the nation’s deadly influenza pandemic and an unlikely-sounding but in fact deadly event, Boston’s great molasses spill. Tellingly, Lehane indicates that the latter mishap was initially labeled an act of terrorism before officials determined that shoddy maintenance had been the cause of the disaster.

(Lehane doesn’t document just how much of the book is factual and how much is fictitious, but he credits 13 books, all evidently nonfiction, as resources in his acknowledgement. Of possible interest, the last item on his list is the left-wing People’s History of the United States by the recently deceased Howard Zinn.)

The Given Day is a long book, clocking in at just over 700 pages, but it is generally a quick, easy and enjoyable read. Some of the middle passages drag, as the book threatens to devolve into a generic historical soap opera cum thriller. But the climactic chapters are rousing as the riots test the mettle of the city and many of its, and the book’s, key figures.

This novel was very enjoyable. It’s a good bet that I’ll be reading more of Lehane’s work in 2013.

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