Posts Tagged ‘historical novel’

An enterprising Boston criminal does well by doing wrong in ‘Live by Night’

November 3, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 3, 2014

Nearly two years ago, I read my first Dennis Lehane novel — The Given Day, Lehane’s sprawling 2008 tale of the well-to-do Coughlin family and their servants (one a black man, the other an Irish immigrant). I enjoyed the book tremendously, as did a relative of mine, who has since been consuming other Lehane works and passing them on to me.

Since then, I’ve read four other Lehane outings: the mystery Shutter Island, the Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro detective novels Moonlight Mile and A Drink Before the War, and now Live by Night.

Live by Night, published in 2012, is a sequel of sorts to The Given Day. The book begins in Boston in 1926, six years after the advent of Prohibition. Young Joe Coughlin — the son of a prominent Boston police official — is working as an aide (and part-time muscle) for a local mobster. After a bank heist goes horribly wrong, leaving three cops dead, Coughlin is nabbed while trying to meet with his lover, Emma Gould, before skipping town.

Coughlin is sentenced to prison, where he falls in with another gangster. After several treacherous years behind bars, his new boss orders the about-to-be-freed Coughlin to take charge of the rum-running business in Tampa, Fla.

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On the far side of the world, an Italian explorer ponders life, death, the universe and everything

March 31, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 31, 2014

The Island of the Day Before, the 1994 novel by Italian author Umberto Eco, is likely the most complicated book I have ever read from start to finish.

The convoluted tale opens with a most unlikely coincidence: Roberto della Griva washes up onto a deserted ship moored off an island in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the 17th century. Della Griva is the sole survivor of the Amaryllis, having been lashed to a makeshift raft by a sailor aboard that vessel amidst a violent storm. By some strange fortune, waves cary him to the Daphne, a seemingly abandoned Dutch expeditionary vessel.

Our protagonist is the lone heir of a minor nobleman who grows up on a large rural estate in territory that is variously ruled by French, Italian and Spanish forces. War summons a teenaged della Griva and his father from their quiet existence and claims the life of the elder man. Thus unmoored from home and family, the imaginative and fanciful Roberto is freed to pursue lively (and sometimes dreary) adventures — first in the salons of Paris and then on the far side of the world.

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

December 27, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
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. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctorow recounts the lives of quirky, quintessential New Yorkers ‘Homer & Langley’

August 27, 2012

American historical novelist E.L. Doctorow revisits a familiar stomping ground, the New York City of decades past, in his 2009 novel, Homer & Langley.

The tale of the Collyer brothers is narrated by the younger sibling. “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” he discloses in the novel’s opening line. Doctorow’s narrative takes us from the brothers’ childhood in the early 20th century until — well, I don’t want to reveal the ending, although it is relatively well known.

That’s because Doctorow’s story is based on the actual Collyer family; the rather notorious Homer and Langley were inheritors and longtime residents of their parents’ elegant home on Fifth Avenue in upper Manhattan. A great deal of the narrative appears to have been invented by Doctorow, although just how much is unclear; the hardcover edition of Homer & Langley that I read had no author’s note, unfortunately, and Doctorow’s website does not appear to explain how the novel deviates from real life.

In any case, Doctorow’s fictionalized Collyers were born around the turn of the 20th century; Homer, the younger by two years, is a gifted pianist. A quick check of Wikipedia and some other sources indicates that the actual brothers were born in the 1880s; that Langley was four years younger and a gifted pianist; and that Homer actually practiced law, rather than Langley, as in the novel. Truth and fiction concur with on Langley’s enthusiasm for fad diets of his own devising. Read the rest of this entry »

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