The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane - Tom Jennings

Aspiring to reveal the long roots of 20th century America’s fantasies of itself, Lehane’s new book nails some while reproducing others.

Boston Mendacity Party. Book review – Tom Jennings
This historical epic abandons the crime thriller territory where its author made his name in order to tackle wider themes of social conflict, while still mobilising ‘class rage’ to illuminate pressure points in society from the perspectives of those traditionally sidelined in such epoch-defining accounts. So, pivotal developments in Boston after the Great War set the scene for twentieth-century patterns of US governance and exemplify specific phenomena with continuing resonance – not least the threat of terrorism here represented by European insurrectionary anarchists. Based on detailed research from contemporaneous material, the novel features fictionalised appearances by real figures like Calvin Coolidge (Massachussetts Governor before becoming President), lawyer John Hoover (later the FBI’s J. Edgar), Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, and baseball legend Babe Ruth (prototyping the commodification of culture). Throw in the deadly postwar flu epidemic, endemic desperate poverty, racial apartheid combined with massive immigration, and labour unrest throughout the country prompting the Red Scare suppression of left-wing activism, and The Given Day’s heady brew culminates in 1919’s failed Boston police strike.

Mapping the contrasting biographies of two main protagonists facilitates the exploration of changing social configurations and loyalties in a period of unprecedented upheaval. Fiery Irish patrolman Danny Coughlin, son of a legendary police captain, is charged with infiltrating local agitators on the promise of promotion. But the pitiful wages and conditions of city policemen instead lead his sympathies towards the class-struggle as Boston’s embryonic police union affiliates to the AFL. Meanwhile Luther Laurence flees Oklahama after killing a vicious crime boss and lands a servant’s job in the Coughlin household, and the pair’s attempts to struggle through very different personal and family troubles increasingly intersect and confront the brutal class- and race-hatred underpinning local ruling class institutions – the increasingly sophisticated strategies the latter pursue to maintain their power, wealth and privilege being heavily suggestive of the multiple manipulations and dishonesties of state and capital to this day.

Unfortunately the book’s exegesis merely mirrors – failing to contextualise and complicate – its characters’ knee-jerk stereotypes concerning new political and social groupings. So socialist and anarchist organisers are summarily dismissed as ‘noodle-heads’, fighting members of the Lettish Workingman’s Society hard-drinking buffoons, and the Italian immigrant community unknowably alien. Followers of Luigi Galleani (stupidly described by Lehane as ‘the Osama bin Laden of his time’) are, then, evil beyond reason, planning the mass murder of ordinary folk as opposed to bombing government and business targets. In effect the tabloid hysteria and prejudicial ‘learned opinion’ of the time is taken as factual, rather than part of the orchestrated propaganda that the author is elsewhere crystal-clear on. Despite the convincing central thread of growing respect among Danny and Luther and their circle, the price paid for their race-transcending solidarity is therefore an individualistic collapse of political potential. Unintentionally, perhaps, the prime contemporary lesson from this exciting and ambitious novel is that forging common cause by cementing fresh divisions is dangerously self-defeating.

The Given Day is published in the UK by Doubleday on 29th January 2009.
Book review published in Freedom[/i], Vol. 69, No. 23/24, December 2008.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Jan 16 2009 09:31


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