It is difficult to believe there could be another novel out there more suited to my taste. The Given Day is set in Boston, a city with a rich and vibrant history I love to visit and love to read about. Its central characters have an Irish heritage I share. The novel deals in American socio-economic and political history, and in particular the history of labour and the left as well as race, all of which fascinates me. And it is written by Dennis Lehane, a writer I greatly admire.
It also delves deep into sporting mythology. And at the risk of sparking a riot of claims from adherents to other sports and other cities, there is perhaps no sport with a mythology as compelling as baseball and no place where those myths are more important than Boston. Oh, and the fact it contains an extraordinarily vivid description of the murderous 1918 influenza virus and that I read it as another such pandemic was supposedly on the march merely added to the sense that this was the right book at the right time.
So any book that is heading into the sort of territory I have described and that starts with the tale of a train journey taken by Babe Ruth from Chicago to Boston during the 1918 World Series is a book I am pre-disposed to like. ´
But however good the ingredients might be, the meal is at the mercy of the chef. And this was fresh territory for Lehane who has experimented some since the early days of the terrific Kenzie / Gennaro series, but not to the extent of writing "the great American" novel. And to all intents and purposes that was the ambition here: an epic tale of American history, featuring famous names (Hoover, Coolidge and Babe Ruth to name a few) and celebrated events, such as the Boston police strike, and yet told from the view point of the men on the street. In this case the narrators are police officer Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence, a black man fleeing a dangerous criminal past in the south.
Those who have followed Lehane's work, and in particular those who have read his master piece Mystic River, will not be surprised to hear that he written a magnificent sweeping novel that succeeds in telling a story of both intimate struggle - ideological, economic, personal - and historical significance.
It does so in part because Lehane has such great command of the narrative, pulling together disparate lives and story strands towards an explosive conclusion in a seamless fashion that has that uncomfortably compelling feeling of inevitability about. And in part because he is an uncompromising writer who explores every shade of grey in his characters putting their every act under the most exacting light.
The stories of Coughlin and Laurence are complex, emotional and uneven but through them Lehane offers a little more insight into why the world is the way it is - both in 1918 and now - and any book that can do this is worthy of respect and consideration.
** By way of an inside, while reading this book I also watched Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's adaptation of Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro novel. The distribution of this film was originally delayed in the UK because of the Madeleine McCann disappearance, because it deals with similar issues, a ridiculous move to my mind and one that suggests there is still confusion over the intersection between art and life and also that someone somewhere believes that we are not emotionally stable enough to make our own decisions about what we watch and when. That aside, this is a terrific and compelling movie. Not one for a first date perhaps, but it is thoughtful, beautifully shot and acted and a triumph for Ben Affleck.