Book Review: The Given Day

You can probably still see the bits of my brain on the cover from where this book BLEW MY MIND.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m quite the Dennis Lehane fan.  The Given Day is his most recent book (2008), his longest book (just over 700 pages) and easily his most unique.

It’s a beautiful, tragic and quintessentially American novel.

Say goodbye to Lehane the noir crime novelist (or at least, see you later) and say hello to Lehane, the Chronicler of All Things American.  The Given Day is a gritty, tough and uncompromising look at America in all her… well, not glory.  And that’s precisely the charm.  Day is honest about our shortcomings.  Lehane clearly exposes our prejudice and ignorance for what they are while reminding us that those are hardly unique to America.  This book is cruel, but not unnecessarily so.  At the end of the Day, Lehane’s America is the cauldron of post-modernity.

Everyone’s worried about immigration and whether or not America the Great is becoming America the Red.  Some are seeing socialists around every corner, and they all complain that the immigrants are coming here unable to speak the language and taking all our jobs.  There are wars and rumors of wars.  Families rise and fall, and all the great institutions (government, big business, the religious institutions) are seen for the corrupt, self-serving machines they are.

You’d think The Given Day is a story of our own times.  But you’d be wrong.

The Given Day follows Aiden “Danny” Coughlin, a second-generation Irish cop in Boston at the close of the Great War, and Luther Lawrence, a black man from Columbus, OH who ends up in Boston by way of Tulsa (and yeah, that’s a good story in-and-of itself.).  These two men become the lens through which we explore all the racism, suspicion, class warfare and violence the American Empire has to offer.

The immigrants are Italian, not Hispanic, and the socialists are union organizers, not health-care supporters, but the rhetoric and the fears behind the rhetoric are the same.  Lehane refuses to take sides, and instead uses the humanity and complexity of his characters to raise the level of debate on these and other issues.  In the end, he argues that to be America is to exist in the tension between progress and power.  Between change and entrenchment.  Between the big business and the worker, the government and the immigrant.

And for those of us in the midst of all of it, what really makes us American is our freedom, our ability to choose.  To rail against the institutions in all their evil (be it the active evil of the big businesses or the passive evil of the Church’s irrelevance).  Even with all the forces of our world aligned against us – the (corrupt) government, organized religion, the class (or is it caste?) systems and sometimes even our own families, we can still stand up and choose to fight for what we want.  Life doesn’t always (or even usually) give us a happy ending.  It’s better, then, to find happiness in the endings we have.

The Given Day pictures America as a perfect post-modern Empire.

Lehane effectively mythologizes an overlooked but important period of American history, demonstrating that the more things change here, the more they stay the same.  If it’s not The Great American Novel, it’s at least a great picture of what it means to be American.  And if you’re still not convinced, Babe Ruth frames and organizes the whole story.  All that’s missing is the Apple Pie.

Bottom Line: This book is a wild adventure that probes the heart of what it means to be free.

I was only left wondering what a Christian reading of The Given Day might look like.  We could rage with Danny against the injustice of the Empire or weep with Luther at the violence that consumes us, even pitting us against each other.  But we can do more than settle into an existential despair that finds joy despite the evil of the systems that stand against us.  We can work toward their redemption, get back up even after they crush us down.  We can work toward an ending that’s not happy despite our circumstances, but hopefully even because of them.