The Given Day: A Novel

In his novels Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, — both turned into gritty, dark, and terrific films — Dennis Lehane has used a crime-fiction framework to intimately explore the shadowy depths and hidden drama of his hometown. Lehane knows Boston like nobody else, from its Harvard-educated Brahmin elites to its ethnic working stiffs whose roots trace back to Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere. His tales map the city’s twisting streets and alleyways, so often incomprehensible to outsiders, and delve beyond the surface provincialism of its anything-but-laid-back populace. Now, with The Given Day, Lehane turns his literary focus to Boston’s troubled past.

The Given Day is Lehane’s most ambitious novel to date, possessing an all-encompassing narrative scope reminiscent of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy while successfully capturing the distinct atmosphere of turbulent Boston in the early 20th century. The book opens as World War I is winding down and the city is about to combust. With the Russian Revolution on the front pages, Bolshevism (and the fear of Bolshevism) is omnipresent. Meanwhile, the Boston Police Department faces the specter of a labor stoppage among its underpaid ranks, a possibility that horrifies the police brass and City Hall. Lehane also tosses in subplots centered on Red Sox slugger Babe Ruth and an African-American fugitive named Luther, who has escaped to Boston after killing a man in Tulsa.

Perhaps inevitably, an Irish-American family is at the center of Lehane’s Boston epic. Thomas Coughlin is a legendary Boston cop who’s now a member of the BPD brass. His son Danny has followed his dad onto the force, but the two men have dramatically different views about the job. Lehane offers a romantic subplot, too. Danny is in love with the family’s mysterious Irish housekeeper, Nora O’Shea, but so is Danny’s brother Connor. Needless to say, this romantic angle heightens the drama in a way that might seem distractingly conventional if it weren’t so engrossing.

Like his father, Danny seeks to do good, but his views on what that means changes over the course of the novel. At the beginning, Danny views the good in simplistic terms: “It had something to do with loyalty and…a man’s honor. It was tied up in duty.” Danny embraces the prejudices of his family and his profession against African Americans and other ethnic groups, especially those espousing radical, left-leaning political views. His goal is to move up the ranks of the police department, just as his father has.

The police brass, among them his father, assign Danny to infiltrate and report on radical organizations like the new police union and underground groups advocating violence against the U.S. government. And while the affable, tough-as-nails Danny succeeds in infiltrating these groups, joining them leads him to reexamine his own prejudices and his deeply held beliefs about justice. Danny learns that the dark underworld of violence and its do-whatever-it-takes ethos extends not just to these supposed “terrorist” groups but to the Boston Police Department as well.

Lehane zeroes in on the radical political fervor of this era, taking us into smoke-filled meeting halls where union members argue about tactics and boozy barrooms where fights break out between radicals and “patriotic” Americans seeking to shut them up. Lehane provides plenty of action, too, as Danny finds himself involved in shootouts with bomb-toting anarchists and battles his way out of several scenes of mob violence. If all of this sounds too melodramatic to believe, it’s not. The seemingly dissonant subplots come together as a dramatic whole; Lehane builds and releases narrative tension with all his customary craft. The prose is solid and strong throughout, and if Lehane consciously eschews lyrical flights of fancy, his writing style is perfectly suited to the toughness and solidity of these characters.

Perhaps the most gripping strand in this braided narrative is the story of Luther Laurence, which begins with his murder of a crime boss in Tulsa and subsequent flight to Boston. Through Luther’s backstory, readers are vouchsafed a vivid picture of Tulsa’s criminal underworld. Like Danny, Luther becomes a changed man in Boston: “If a man was lucky,” Luther thinks to himself, “he was moving toward something his whole life. He was building a life…working for his wife, for his children, for his dream that their life would be better because he’d been a part of it. That, Luther finally understood, was what he’d failed to remember in Tulsa.” Luther decides to return to Tulsa, risking his life to be with his wife and infant son.

Lehane’s imagined world is a violent one, and an undercurrent of menace, the threat of bodily harm, seems to fuel every scene. All of these characters, but especially Danny and Luther, are caught in the confusion of wanting a more peaceful world while living in a world where violence is seemingly the only means of resolving differences. Danny is disgusted by the Bolshevik radical underworld that celebrates violence as a way of achieving the worker’s paradise, but he also loathes a political status quo that uses brutality and unconstitutional means to eradicate these radicals. Nobody, Lehane suggests, is truly a neutral.

By book’s end, everyone is moving away from the carnage of Boston. Danny, rejected by his dad for failing to live up to the family’s strict code of honor, has married Nora and headed west. Luther goes back to Tulsa to face his past. Even Babe Ruth, Red Sox slugger extraordinaire, gets traded and faces an uncertain future with the Yankees. Lehane ends the book with Ruth arriving in New York, a dark moment in Boston history if ever there was one, and looking out at the city “in all its bustle and shine, all its light and billboards and limestone towers. What a day. What a city. What a time to be alive.” Like the fabled slugger, Lehane has swung for the fences with this sprawling tale, hitting the ball on the sweet spot and watching it arc heavenward.