The theme of Dennis Lehane’s novel The Given Day can be summed up thusly: Corruption is inevitable, nice guys finish last, and violence rules over reason. The only saving grace for humanity is love.
Set around the Boston Police strike of 1919, The Given Day is an epic in miniature that tells the stories of three men: Danny Coughlin, a Boston policeman; Luther Laurence, a black man on the run from a crime he committed; and Babe Ruth, who needs no introduction. The events of the book span less than a year, but what a year it is: an influenza pandemic gives way to labor unrest that eventually swallows up the city. Along the way, lives are variously torn apart and patched back together; Ruth gets traded from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees; and at least 10 of Lehane’s characters lose their lives.
All this mayhem is firmly grounded in reality; the lives of cops, revolutionaries, black outlaws, and even professional baseball players in 1919 were fraught with plenty of peril. The breadth of Lehane’s research into the events surrounding the police strike is evident, and the story he tells is an interesting one. But as he returns, time and time again, to the idea that the forces of corruption and evil will eventually touch every life, no matter how pure, one is forced to wonder if there might not be an alternative.
The characters of The Given Day can not so much be divided into “good” and “bad”, but rather “bad” and “worse”. There are a few exceptions: the Giddreauxs, an old couple who take Luther in and put him to work for the NAACP, are the only people we meet whose lives are not sullied somehow by greed, corruption or violence.
If there was anyone else living in Boston in 1919 whose life was not wracked by grief, poisoned by personal failure, or splattered with bloodshed, we do not meet them on Lehane’s pages. Even Danny Coughlin’s younger brother, Joe, an innocent who is held up as one of the only pure beings in Danny’s world, gets beat up by his father, runs away from home, gets beat up some more by street urchins, grabbed at by a pervert and witnesses a tragic injury of one of his siblings.
Babe Ruth ends up fairly well off, as one might expect, but he too is leading a hollow life, devoid of meaning, bloated with excess, and haunted by memories. The inclusion of the celebrity slugger is a curious choice; while Lehane’s other characters’ lives intertwine in surprising and meaningful ways, the Babe passes in and out of the narrative without lending much to its meaning.
As the book opens, Babe Ruth is eastward bound on a train, which breaks down and strands him and his Red Sox teammates in Ohio. Ruth hears the distant crack of a bat and heads off into the countryside, where he finds Luther Laurence and friends playing a game of ball. When Ruth’s teammates join him on the field and the shared joy of sport fails to overcome racism, Lehane is able to nicely demonstrate the vast gulf that stretched between white and black less than 100 years ago.
This theme surfaces again as Laurence and Coughlin become friends, leaving behind the taboos of their time to share the same bottle as easily as they share confidences; to call each other by name, rather than “sir” and “boy”’; to see each other as men. All this points implicitly and, at times explicitly, to the idea that the injustices and failures both observe in their culture will one day change.
Through all this suffering and violence, Lehane extends only one thin thread of hope: that love can conquer some, if not all, of the world’s evils. But even this promise is watered down by uncertainty. Luther eventually gets back to the wife and infant son he left behind, but buys his way back from damnation with dirty money and threats of violence. Danny Coughlin finally finds the love of a good woman, but along the way, he alienates himself from his entire family, loses his job and leaves his beloved city of Boston for good. Babe Ruth realizes he has never known pure, real love, and knows he is the worse for it.
Lehane makes a convincing argument about the true meaning of this kind of love. Danny Coughlin tells his younger brother, “You can have two families in this life, Joe, the one you’re born to and the one you build. ... Your first family is your blood family and you always be true to that. But there’s another family and that’s the kind you go out and find. Maybe even by accident sometimes. And they’re as much blood as your first family. Maybe more so, because they don’t have to look out for you and they don’t have to love you. They choose to.”
As Danny slowly carves out a niche for himself in the world he has spent so many years railing against, Lehane suggests that there may be another path, one that is not stained with blood and fouled with iniquity. Unfortunately, this path is hard to see amid the pile of bodies.