The Given Day

Reading huge, epic novels has always been complicated for me. The best time to read them is on vacation, but hauling a huge book through airports and rental cars, along with other reading, is cumbersome. But not anymore now that I have a Kindle. I was out of town getting some R&R and the cumbersome aspect of carrying around a large work of fiction, a sports book, Newsweek, the WSJ, and the Chicago Tribune is no more. It even makes me think I can justify the Kindle from a cash flow perspective.

This Lehane book is that “large work of fiction” I just mentioned. It’s a mighty piece of historical fiction that takes place at the end of WWI. I started it and finished it in the middle of my vacation, which was perfect. It was great reading material for a vacation; long and involved, but exciting and thought-provoking. I’m going to classify it as popular fiction, but I don’t think it’s quite as “popular” as Lehane’s crime novels like Mystic River or Gone, Baby, Gone.

Like those books, it’s set mostly in Boston. It’s the story of the Coughlins, an Irish-American family of cops and politicians, set during the years of 1917-1919, a tumultuous time in Boston and all over America. Tumultuous because of the rapidly changing landscape in the seats of power in America. The labor movement was in full swing, race relations were heated, women were on the brink of getting the right to vote, and fear of communism coupled with paranoia about radical immigrant groups was especially acute. Lehane brings them all into play.

I term this book epic because it intertwines other families and individual personalities with the Coughlins. So even though it doesn’t span a long time-period like a traditional epic, it switches back and forth between these people and places, giving it an epic feel. For example, the story of Luther Laurence, a black factory worker/domestic servant whom trouble seems to follow around, is just as involved as that of Danny Coughlin, a white cop bucking the establishment. Eventually they become intertwined forming the backbone of the story, highlighting issues of race and class that were so warped back then. Other stories involved an early-career Babe Ruth, a young J. Edgar Hoover, the Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, and the Coughlin’s domestic help. It’s a wild, roaming ride through post WWI America and I was engrossed from the get-go.

I often hold off reading these long stories regardless of the convenience factor, which is why I’ve only read two (labeled as epic) in the last few years. Besides hauling it around, staring down the barrel of 700+ pages is sometimes daunting because it takes a lot of focus and locks me out of reading other fiction at the same time. But the rewards are great, so I’ve purchased another epic that I’ll read this year for sure (World Without End).

Lehane’s tone is kind of gloomy. There’s a lot of evil and heartbreak in this book, along with some solid family carnage. So I had that going for me, which is nice. Lehane’s characters spend a lot of time ruminating about their situation and his narrative style is thoughtful and descriptive. At times I found myself welcoming a section of crackling dialogue because it didn’t seem that common. I don’t have empirical evidence to support this, that’s just the way it felt. I would like to see book stats come out that measure items like this. How about a ratio that compares dialogue to narration? The quant head in me would welcome that.

I’ve said it before, this is why we read. The only time I turned on the TV this vacation was to measure the screen and see how well we could see it from the back of the room. It was on for about four minutes. No need for it when you have a captivating work of fiction, a solid sports book (Breaking the Slump), and a few newspapers and periodicals handy. Gail read three books and mentioned that it was the most relaxing vacation we’ve ever had. I agree.