Dennis Lehane, The Given Day

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I haven’t actually finished reading this but I’m posting because YOU HAVE TO READ IT!

I’ve been nagged by quite a few folk now to get into Dennis Lehane’s books but… there was always something else going on.  I got an advance copy from the publisher, Transworld, and when I picked up the envelope, I thought it was two books.  It’s a beast.  I generally prefer small books, novels that get to the point without florid, turgid, insipid prose deserving of a jumbo black marker* – in my experience as a book buyer who is regularly bombarded by The Next Big Thing in Fiction, I’ve found that red ink doesn’t blot out the bad memory of such awful pseudo-Booker, mealy-mouthed garbage as some editor has failed to strangle at birth.  Just as dogs don’t have five legs; great novels don’t waste a word, and this is where The Given Day truly comes into its own.

The narrative starts with the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth on a train.  He’s drunk, hung-over and still drinking.  During a train stop, Babe gets off the train and hearing the distinctive sound of ball on bat, Babe finds a game in progress between two black teams.  Until he saw this, it seems that it has never occurred to Babe that black folk play ball too.

Though Babe Ruth is not a major character in the arc of the story, he will periodically appear during the telling of the story – a period stop to the action of this historical piece that is little short of being the best thriller I’ve ever read.  My favourite scene is the chapter where Babe Ruth is drinking with communists in a New York bar when a bunch of lawyers and police come in… the fight scene is pure slap-stick like The Three Stooges but with more bar stools.

If your kind of thriller involves gratuitous violence or misogyny of the sort you’d read in a serial-killer chiller then you will be disappointed.  There are no tricks or cons or ruminations of the state of the nation or other ‘This-Is-The-Great-American-Novel’ pretentiousness.  This is fast, punchy storytelling that never lets the pace drop because life itself is fast and gives little opportunity for reflection.  Throughout the narrative, Dennis Lehane never forgets that people read novels for the story and that means plot which in turn means great characters.  We don’t seem to get great novels like this in Britain because we’ve apparently forgotten that great novels aren’t written to win prizes, they aren’t even written to entertain the reader.  Each great writer writes simply to discover what happens at the end of the story and the excitement they feel when their connected with the right story will always connect with the audience.

This is nothing like the stories of Shutter Island or Gone Baby Gone.  This is epic in scale but intimate in truth.  The heroes aren’t always heroic or wise and the villains aren’t always evil.  In a novel that describes soldiers returning as broken men from the trenches of WWI, the Spanish flu pandemic, communist agitators, anarchists blowing-up police stations and churches, anti-union violence, families betrayed, murder and mayhem, the infamous Boston police strike of 1919 and, I’ve been told (I haven’t got that far yet), a rip-roaring cavalry charge against men, women and children, Dennis Lehane packs more humanity, more comedy, more high-drama and adventure than every program of every series of The Shield and The Wire.

This novel isn’t out until the end of January but you must get your hands on a copy.  It really is good and I really am going to try and finish it – soon – though I have a literal mountain of other books waiting.

Link to BookRabbit

* – to burn such crap would simply damage the environment; it’s bad enough a publisher has wasted a tree.

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