The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Given Day is the tale of two men, Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence, and their families, set against the backdrop of pre-prohibition Boston.
Yeah, I know that didn't really say much but it's hard to write a teaser for a 700 page historical novel.
As I understand it, this was Dennis Lehane's return to the novel world after five years of doing other things, mostly writing for The Wire. And he crammed every thought he may have had in about Boston in the early 20th Century in those five years into this book.
Danny Coughlin is a cop working hellish hours, almost 100 hours a week, with the Boston PD, following in the footsteps of his cop father. He's conflicted about his feelings for Nora, his family's housekeeper, and is something of a black sheep. When his father comes asking for help rooting out Boleshivik cells in Boston, how can he say no?
Luther Laurence, who once played an impromptu baseball game with Babe Ruth, goes from Columbus to Tulsa, and heads to Boston to escape some trouble and winds up working for Danny's father and getting under the thump of another cop, Edward McKenna, racist extraordinaire.
Danny and Luther drive the book, living through historical events like the Spanish Influenza epidemic and the Boston Molasses Explosion, while dealing with their conflicts with their respective families. For the most part, it's a pretty gripping read. The political climate of Boston circa 1920 was a spectacle to behold: downtrodden blacks, unions rising up to protest horrible pay and working conditions, communists lurking in the shadows, and the old guard struggling to hold everything together and maintain the status quo.
The supporting cast is a diverse and colorful bunch. Ed McKenna is despicable but you get the feeling he's doing what he thinks is right, which makes him that much more horrible. Danny's father and brother are also conflicted characters. I also really liked the friendship between Luther and Nora.
The entire cast goes through the meat grinder so many times they look like ham salad by the end of the book. While the ending is largely happy, it's not a happily ever after sort of thing. More like a "we're lucky to be alive" sort of thing.
Like I said, it was a really good read but I felt like LeHane was trying to take on too much at times. There was a little too much going on and also it felt like LeHane did a ton of research and was trying to get the most of out his nickel with it. Cutting 100 pages out of this beast wouldn't have hurt it. Also, apart from the initial baseball game with Luther, I thought the Babe Ruth parts were pretty unnecessary.
This one is right on the 3/4 line. I guess I'm going to call it a 3.5.
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