VJ Books Blog

(www.miamiherald.com, Nov. 14, Nancy Klingener)

The question comes at every one of Dennis Lehane‘s public appearances: “Will you ever return to Patrick and Angie?”

The answer is probably “No.”

”It’s been nine years, and I love those characters,” says Lehane, who appears Saturday at Miami Book Fair International. “But they stopped talking to me, not the other way around. I just can’t seem to get them on the phone.”

Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro were the heroes of Lehane’s first five novels, private-eye tales set in contemporary Boston. They were successful books, and Lehane’s publisher would have happily kept putting them out.

Most writers, having found a successful niche, would keep working it. But Lehane, a graduate of Florida International University’s creative writing program, had different stories to tell, bigger stories. The first was Mystic River, a bestseller made into an Oscar-winning movie by Clint Eastwood.

Then he traveled into the past with the thriller Shutter Island, set in 1954 and soon to be a film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo Di Caprio.

Lehane still wasn’t satisfied. For his new book he went even farther into the past and found a story bigger in scope.

The Given Day (Morrow, $27.95) is a sprawling historical drama that covers just one year — from 1918 to 1919 — but takes in a huge slice of American history. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it a “majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre.”

Lehane says the book may seem a departure, but it fits his style and comfort zone.

”I do epic. I’m comfortable in the epic arena. Even my private eye novels have a kind of epic feel to them,” he says.

When he was a young writer he wanted to copy writers he admired, he says, Alice McDermott or Norman Maclean, who described ”precisely observed lives without a lot of high drama in them.” He tried. But it wasn’t him.

”You pick different flowers from the same garden,” Lehane says. “My flower happens to be the epic flower. I’m very comfortable with it.”

Still, taking on issues of race, class and love was intimidating.

”When I went after a big canvas, like a huge historical epic, I definitely felt like I bit off more than I could chew for large sections of the book,” Lehane says. “The Given Day eventually clocked in at 720 pages, quite a commitment to ask of readers more accustomed to getting their entertainment from text messages and Internet videos. . . . It was terrifying. I kept having to comfort myself by looking at books that were longer. I kept looking over DeLillo’s Underworld or McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.”

Although it is set almost a century ago, many of the themes and dilemmas faced by characters feel surprisingly current. The book opens as World War I is ending. The Red Sox are annual title contenders, led by emerging star Babe Ruth, during an era of political unrest, with anarchists active and terrorist attacks a real possibility.

The hero, Danny Coughlin, is a survivor of the explosion of the Salutation Street police station (a real event, as is the police strike and a catastrophic molasses plant explosion that covered the Italian North End neighborhood in sweet, sticky goo). Coughlin is part of Irish police aristocracy, at a time when the Irish were already gaining a foothold in Boston’s political circles. But there is resistance, personified in the novel by then-Massachusetts governor and future president, Calvin Coolidge, a dour Protestant.

Coughlin is torn between the loyalties to his family — his father is a ranking officer in the department, his godfather the department’s wily enforcer — and loyalties to his fellow officers, who work under atrocious conditions and have been betrayed by broken promises of higher pay once the war ends. Coughlin also deals with the societal pressures to find and deport subversives, including terrorists, many of them recent Italian immigrants, and the widespread fear and prejudice that brings to the larger Italian community.

”It was very hard not to notice” the parallels in that time and ours regarding attitudes toward protecting individual liberties vs. public safety, Lehane says. But he went to great efforts to avoid lecturing about civil rights and the abuses of state power.

”I’m not a polemicist. I’m a novelist,” he says. ‘A lot of us, particularly those of us who come from jobs whose foundation is freedom of speech, we’re a bit pissed off. The issue is what do you do with that rage? One of the things you don’t do is stand up there and point your finger and do the `Do you get it?’ thing.”

Instead, Lehane channeled his rage into the complex tale that not only takes in Coughlin’s conflicting loyalties but also the story of Luther Laurence, a talented black baseball player who winds up in Boston on the lam after deserting his pregnant wife. Through Luther’s eyes we see a different side of Boston and the beginnings of the NAACP, viewed as a terrorist organization by some within the police department.

The Given Day ends at an interesting time in American history, with Prohibition taking effect and the Roaring ’20s on the horizon. Lehane has mentioned the possibility of writing a trilogy about his characters, but he’s wary.

”I felt early on that I would love to continue with them through some other events in history,” Lehane says. “The ’20s is a decade that has defeated a lot of writers, many of whom I would quite comfortably say were better than me.”

But as evidenced by the scope and ambition of this novel, it would be unwise to expect Lehane to back down from the challenge.