By Dennis Lehane
William Morrow. 702 pp. $27
Reviewed by Stuart M. Kaminsky
The Given Day
moves at the pace of an Indiana Jones movie with a narrative voice that touches the eye and delights the ear. Dennis Lehane brilliantly paints the details of Boston's 1918 streets, homes, bars, and meeting halls. The novel shows the influence of many writers, from John Dos Passos to E. L. Doctorow, but this book is all Lehane at his best.
At the center of the tale is Danny Coughlin, a Boston cop. Danny battles his way through a killer flu, anarchist bombers, the first police strike in the United States, and the facade of respectability of his father, a graft-taking police captain.
Danny's battles are both verbal and literal. We first meet him in the boxing ring. As the tale moves on, he is shot, stabbed and beaten, sometimes more than once.
Into Danny's life comes Luther Laurence, a black man on the run from another black man out for revenge. Babe Ruth, at his peak as a pitcher and about to turn baseball into a home-run hitter's game, strolls blissfully through the tale, encountering both Danny and Luther.
The sections on Ruth are wonderful shaggy dog stories. In each, Ruth, perfectly drawn by Lehane, wanders into some adventures that alter his life. The novel opens with the Babe getting off a train that has stopped for emergency repairs. Drawn by the sound of ball against bat, he wanders onto a field where two teams of young black men are playing baseball. He gets into the game, but the outcome of the game haunts him and the reader for the rest of the book.
While the Babe searches for the family he never had, Luther Laurence tries to get back to his wife and new son, and Danny Coughlin labors to please his father and keep his family together.
Weaving through the lives of Danny, Luther and the Babe are icons of the era, many of whom are skewered, sometimes in only a few lines. John Hoover, later to become J. Edgar, is a sullen young creation. And then there are Eugene O'Neill, John Reed, Samuel Gompers, Calvin Coolidge, each perfectly evoked in short sketched appearances.
In Danny's 1918 Irish world of Boston, anarchists are targeting people with determination and bombs that differ only slightly from those of today's Islamic terrorists. Racism abounds. Fear of communism erupts into an indiscriminate riot. The best friend of Danny's father plots the destruction of the NAACP. Anti-Semitism is unquestioned and women are marginalized. Danny's mother is barely present.
The Coughlins, including Danny, are deeply flawed. They betray and are betrayed, but each is capable of heroism and love.
Lehane can touch the reader with small personal details: the button of a stuffed bear, the broken glasses of a communist lawyer. But through it all is Boston, brought to life through the smells, sounds, tastes and touches of the city. It is a city Dennis Lehane has created with love and an often ruthless eye.