'The Given Day' by Dennis Lehane

Corruption, violence and disaster heat tale of 1919 Boston

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After successes with tightly focused crime-genre novels such as "Shutter Island" and "Mystic River," Dennis Lehane has been bitten by the epic bug.

His new one, a sprawler at 702 pages, attempts to be the "Gone With the Wind" for his native Boston, the "city on a hill" that was rocked with a series of disasters in 1919.

That city of that year was far distant from the Colonial-era town of American patriots. Instead, dissents of all stripes, including the police, and a bizarre, deadly flow of molasses, brought Beantown to its knees, with a shove from corrupt and venal public officials.

   
"THE GIVEN DAY"

By Dennis Lehane
Morrow ($27.95)

   

The aftermath of World War I created a flurry of problems that threatened to destabilize the democracy cited by President Wilson as worth fighting for in an international conflict. It's a fascinating period of terrorism, government repression, a pandemic, social unrest and rapid modernization all in a time of religious fervor.

Lehane simmers this historical stew slowly, lovingly and with frequent dashes of melodrama and violence. Few of its 40 chapters are without a conflict of some sort -- family squabbles, bloody battles, nasty betrayals, drunken and sexual follies, all punctuated by over-the-top dialogue peppered with salty language.

Real people -- Babe Ruth, J. Edgar Hoover, A. Mitchell Palmer, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Frazee -- stomp through the pages along with Lehane's fictional ones.

Those creations are all larger than life, especially his two heroes, one white, one black. Danny Coughlin, son of a respected police official, is a leader among the cops' union, a loyalist to his family and police force until they both test his conscience.

Luther Laurence flees a wrong turn into crime that takes him away from his young pregnant wife and promising baseball career to the vicious racism of Boston.

Both are heroic -- moral, sensitive, good with their fists, guns and minds and charming as all get out. Of course, they become buddies as Lehane propels them to the book's chaotic climax.

Ruth, whose last year with the Boston Red Sox was 1919, is too good of a personality for a novelist to pass up and Lehane gets the Bambino's character mostly right. He's not really part of the big story, however, and his chapters seem inserted as an afterthought.

When the police finally strike, nearly two-thirds of the novel's expansive plot has run its course. The walkout triggers two days of riots, compromised intervention by Coolidge, then Massachusetts governor, and sends our heroes to their fate in a conclusion that's both rushed and convenient.

Despite the hurried ending, "The Given Day" is a triumph of the fictional imagination. Lehane's writing seldom flags as he mixes moments of intimacy with grand set pieces of violent confrontations, fast-paced and suspenseful.

Lehane has chosen a big canvas and he fills every bit of it with echoes of writers Doctorow, Fitzgerald and Lardner blended with muralists Bosch and Rivera, plus a large dose of Howard Zinn-flavored history.

Not all of it works, but that's OK in a novel of such ambition, for much else does, particularly the book's quality to entertain and keep you reading.


Contact book editor Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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