Dennis Lehane and the epic novel

November 17, 2008

When I think of epic historical novels, I usually think that they are too long and poorly edited (that is probably redundant). I also expect them to cover several generations, some of which are rather uninteresting and several decades and events, many of which have no need to be remembered or romanticized.

So when i picked up Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, “The Given Day” and looked to the last page and saw that it said 702 and looked inside the front cover page and saw a cast of characters (but not who would play them in the inevitable movie given the success of his “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “Mystic  River”), I opened the book to read it with some trepidation.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be a page turner that was mainly a four character romance combined with a Greek tragedy family tale centered around Lehane’s favorite subject, Boston police officers. Even its historical events were few, all taking place within a two year period in post World War I Boston. The events, the Boston police strike, Attorney General Mitchell’s and others attempts to quell labor unrest by cloaking it in Bolshvik clothing and the trade of Babe Ruth from Boston to the Yankees, were not too much although even a baseball fan like me could have done without trying to turn the Babe into some symbol of the other kind of worker in America. The other real life characters like Calvin Coolidge and a young ambitious federal attorney named John Hoover, later to drop the “ohn” and add Edgar  (an old legal mentor of mine once told me never to trust any man who parted his name on the side and his hair in the middle) added just as much in the way of real characters as I needed.

But what the story was really about was the two tiered system in Boston, the Brahmins who had the real power and the Irish immigrants, who controlled  the politics and the wards and thought they had power, but really served the interests of the Brahmins. Against that background, Lehane’s hero, an Irish cop and son of one the most powerful police superintendents, fought valiently to form a union, marry against the wishes of his father, engineer the police strike, kill terroists, befriend an African-American (taboo in segregated Boston) and have more principles than you usually find even in a 700 page novel. In short, he was your ideal book hero-kind of a Howard Roark of the left.

But Lehane was not satisfied giving us just one hero, we also have the African-American hero who shows up Babe Ruth on the baseball field, kills gangsters and terroists, saves the cop’s life twice and builds an NAACP headquarters.Are these characters larger than life. Of course they are-that is what makes this an epic novel. Do we care about them-yes on every single page of this exceptional novel. Their lives, family struggles, societal encounters and the way their lives explain not only those times but these as well (in case you haven’t noticed, theirs was not the only decade in which the government used the pretext of terrorism to take away rights).

Lehane has accomplished something few novelists do in large tomes, depict very raw emotional responses to family and public problems in a gripping relevant way. I have seen this book compared to Doctorow’s “Ragtime”. As much as I love that book, it used the events to shape the characters. These characters are shaped mainly by their responses to each other and events are a backdrop. Each book is great but in a different way. So if Lehane chooses to write another 700 page historical epic, count me in. He knows how to do it well.

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One Response to “ Dennis Lehane and the epic novel ”

  1. Logan Lamech on November 18, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    That’s a great review. I’ll have to check him out.

    Logan Lamech

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