Though this is my third Richard Price this year, I’ve been reading somewhat backward, since Clockers is early (1992). I reviewed his latest– Lush Life –in October. The guy has certainly grown in sixteen years. Lush Life is a superb version of Clockers, but I must say it’s still, a collection of the same elements: Projects. Mean streets. Drug dealers, some incorrigible, some salvageable. Relationship-challenged detectives. And it gets a bit old.
So what’s the difference, I asked myself, between Price sticking to his world and, say, Faulkner sticking to his? Perspective. Shading. Character. Even though we visit and revisit some of the same Yoknapatawpha landscape and people time after time in F’s work, they’re never the same. There’s always fresh nuance, a different history, a different angle on the same history. With Price, you change the names, but you could plug them into different plots. So, the person who recommended one read “anything by Richard Price” might have added that one could read one, read them all. Well, not quite. But I found Clockers disappointing. Maybe after Lush Life, he’ll find he’s reached the zenith of this dynamic and will reach out for something else. I hope so. He’s got too much talent to keep himself confined in these environs.
GIVE IT UP FOR THE GIVEN DAY—LEHANE’S LATEST WOW
It was fascinating to me that I would read Richard Price’s Clockers (On which see my recent comments) and Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (be sure to click on the 3-minute video interview with Lehane on this link) in such close proximity to one another. Lehane illustrates where Richard Price could go if he chose to. Lehane is by and large bound by the territory in and around Boston. Coronado (play and Short story volume), set in small town New Mexico, is a high-quality exception that proves his versatility. But most of his stuff depends on an intense sense of geography, neighborhood, and character of the northeast. Yet, nothing ever stales the way it does–at least for me–with Price, even though both use the mystery form extensively. Lehane has jumped around in time somewhat in the past (Mystic River is set in the fifties), but this time he’s written a genuine historical novel in a setting nearly a century past. And he once again demonstrates why he, Louise Erdrich, and Cormac McCarthy are my favorite living American authors.
The focus of the action is the Boston Police Strike of 1920 (which I hadn’t known about) and an Irish family whose lives and fortunes are twined with the department. The tyrannical father is a Captain, the older son, Danny, (our protagonist) a patrolman, one younger brother a lawyer. Amid horrid working conditions (72-hour shifts, requirements to buy their own uniforms, filthy station houses) the officers strive to protect and serve under the yoke of brutal management which constantly breaks promises to increase wages and clean things up. In the course of the novel, we wade through the 1918 flu epidemic, the tensions of WWI, the birth of FBI anti-terrorism (Meet the young and zealous John Hoover), the rising influence of the NAACP, and the birth of modern big league baseball (Babe Ruth is a recurring character.) This may sound like a kitchen sink potpourri, but Lehane manages it all deftly.
In his little video on the Harper Collins site, Lehane calls The Given Day an “epic.” I’m not sure what he means, but it certainly has some scope. Three sons battling a father, who worked his way up from immigrant poverty. A subplot odyssey with Luther Laurence the main black character’s family that goes from Ohio to Oklahoma and back to Boston via Kansas City. There are two men who can’t quite admit they’re in love, realize how intensely they feel a bit late, and try to claw their way back to their women. There’s race, racism, and a glimmer of the possibility of racial reconciliation. Much of the boss-worker, terrorist-civil-rights struggle seems uncomfortably modern. The Patriot Act mentality has been alive and well since the founding of the republic, and it is alive and well in The Given Day.
A short word about language. Lehane uses modern profanity. That is, there’s a lot of “fuck,” where the cursing of the day to my understanding was more liable to be religious than sexual. Furthermore, he uses the modern locution of, for example, “Fuck you doing?” instead of “What the fuck you doing?” I suppose it’s a device that has the effect of keeping the reader involved, and once I got used to it, I gave him a pass. Still bothered me though.
The heart of the book,however, lies not in such devices but in Lehane’s characters–flawed, often flailing, but trying to keep themselves on track toward some version of happiness and virtue even though life makes it hard to keep from going another way. It’s a struggle we all have, though most of us don’t have to suffer so extremely. But we all have it, and The Given Day yanks you in and keeps tugging at you all the way through. It’s one of those books I’m sorry I finished. I’d like to still be reading it. My one disappointment is that I’ve been unsuccessful in finding the meaning of the title. If anyone has an idea let me know. In the meantime, I’m happy to live in the dark about it as long as I have the memory of the book by my side.