It wasn't difficult for me to finish Dennis Lehane's new novel, The Given Day, before I got on a plane for Tampa and the Super Bowl, which I was broadcasting for the BBC. What was difficult was carrying it! My main regret was the proof copy was so big I didn't bring it with me; the notes I'd taken had stopped being comprehensive as I got more and more caught up in its many-layered story, eventually I was just jotting down some of the best lines and my admiration of the way he made the structure work. The novel is another quantum leap for a writer who'd already made one such jump, from his Kenzie and Gennaro books to Mystic River; it's an historical novel centered on the Boston police strike of 1919. It's also his first novel in five years, and worth the wait; I'd say it falls somewhere between Mystic River and E.L. Doctorow. It's a risky book too, because Lehane's stock as a 'crime writer' has never been higher, and though the novel is set among the police, and a corrupt police lieutenant is a great villain, worthy of any crime drama, the parameters of the story go far beyond that, to issues of race and class, immigration and melting pots, of unions and management, of government control and government's purpose, and of baseball.
It's a daring move, an epic novel from a writer who's one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, and thus far very well served by the movies. Not only was Mystic River made into a superb film by Clint Eastwood, but Ben Affleck directed brother Casey in a remarkable adaptation of Gone Baby Gone, which seemed to fall lamentably between the cracks when the awards season began. Martin Scorsese is filming Lehane's gothic thriller Shutter Island, a challenge to adapt for the screen, and Lehane himself has scripted for The Wire, the epic TV cop show.
I'd arranged to meet Lehane the day after the game, and that Monday it was pouring down rain in St. Petersburg, so I appreciated the old-fashioned portico protecting the sidewalk on the block of Central where the restaurant Bella Brava, incongruously chic and modern, is located. As it turned out Lehane had been at the game too (he actually met his wife at a Super Bowl party!), so we talked football and Bruce Springsteen's halftime show for a while, and noted how this rain seemed to be washing away all trace of the game from the area. He'd just finished with the annual writer's conference he runs at Eckerd College, where he did his own degree in writing; he doesn't spend much of his time in his native Boston anymore, living most of the year in St. Pete with his wife, who's an opthamologist there, and doing his writing in a downtown office. Lehane looks like a character from one of his Boston books, and sounds like it too, so I ask him about his time as a student at Eckerd, which must have been a big change from Boston.
DL: It got me to switch to decaf, if you will. To calm down. I wrote very minimalist at the time, and you could say I've been working away from that.
It's odd, because The Given Day is such a big book, but with its concerns with race and class, and the way you tell the big picture with smaller personal stories, it reminded me a lot of The Wire.
DL: Well, that all predates The Wire, the issues of class and race. My first novel was about race war standing in for class warfare, and that was the point of the last page of that book, if I can give myself props, cause I wrote it in 1990 (it was published in '94), I thought was the best thing I'd written. But The Wire, what it taught me in the last four years was distillation, and structure in a different way. The novelist's structure is unwieldy, and you don't realise how much so until you try an epic. Without The Wire I might have produced a 900 page book.
When I started reading The Given Day, it seemed familiar; the opening scene recalls The Natural, with Babe Ruth getting off the train, and Don DeLillo opened Underworld with the 1951 playoff. But what you did with it, both as framing, and commentary on the story, was impressive, and the way baseball comes back into the main story too, in just a small but significant way.
DL: Do you know the writer Stewart O'Nan? (Here we digress to discuss, as fellow Boston Red Sox fans, Faithful, a book O'Nan co-wrote with Stephen King about the Sox 2004 World Series win, the win which canceled Ruth's so-called 'Curse of the Bambino', and finally rewarded all us long-suffering followers). He has a concept he calls the 'natural clock container', and for me that was Ruth. My clock was from the 1918 World Series to Ruth's sale to the Yankees, and the police strike was the story contained within that container. It's the kind of thing you rarely see done on TV, because it's hard to follow one big story, there's too much indulgence, it's what stopped Twin Peaks, say, from being as great as it could've been. But the story has to stay true to its spine. I'd write stuff for The Wire that I'd love and at the story meetings they'd say 'that's great, but how does it pay off to the ending?', and they were right.
There's a great sense in The Given Day of things reflecting the past eight years in America, particularly in the way the powers that be, including J Edgar Hoover, invite trouble, as an excuse for repression. That's before John Hoover became J. Edgar, and the Bureau of Investigation became the FBI, and it's a great untold story about repression...
DL: Well, I don't think there's a single human being who's not a dirty bomb in Manhattan away from tromping all over civil liberties...
There's a great line, when James J. Storrow, who's sort of the enlightened upper-class, says of the police chief, Edwin Curtis, 'such men fiddle while cities burn...such men love ash'. Curtis, Hoover, governor Calvin Coolidge: we see their equivalents in government today.
DL: Thanks, I'm glad you liked the line, but there's no pat answer for the 'meaning' of the book. If it was pure good and bad, it wouldn't be interesting...
And the FBI agent Rayme Finch sees it, he says 'people don't want truth they want certainty, or the illusion of it.'
DL: Finch was a real character; he was the first Melvin Purvis, a superstar agent, who overshadowed Hoover. But what he's talking about, that's the human impulse.
It reminded me in a lot of ways of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.
DL: Hammett is so great. I have to go back and read that again. Everyone goes back to Chandler, but Hammett's where it starts.
It's interesting too that, in the end, the only union that saves the characters is the marriage union...
DL: I knew I was writing about unions, about all aspects of the word union. If you look back at my books you'll see I'm playing with one word or concept. But if you have to tell people what the ending means, it means you haven't done your job.
The Given Day is such a departure from your previous work; it's as big a jump from that as Mystic River was from your detective novels.
DL: It's hard for me to write unless what I'm doing scares me on some level, unless it's something I haven't done before. I have to stay as loose as possible, you can't worry about what people want. What you owe your audience is a great performance.
But with your next book you're going to return to Kenzie and Gennaro?
DL: Yes, it's ten years later, and it scares me. Do I still have that looseness? They had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I've flirted with self-importance. But he (Patrick Kenzie) hadn't talked to me for ten years, and then all of a sudden I heard his voice in my head.
Was it Casey Affleck's voice?
DL: No, but it's funny, because Casey wasn't anything like what I'd pictured Patrick, but I can't get him out of my mind. But it worked. Only Ben and Casey knew what they were doing there, well, them and the DP (John Toll, cinematographer) but they could see it. Obviously, Patrick has aged, he's not 32 anymore.
You say 'flirted with self-importance'. I read an interview with you, and you talked about success and how you could've become 'a real dick', and your first marriage blowing up. But it wasn't clear in that interview, was this cause and effect?
DL: No, I had lost my wife and home, and then the book (Mystic River) took off. That's when I could've turned into a prick. But that's when I was able to put things into perspective. I tell my students don't become a writer because you need to self-actualise. Go to a therapist! So many have no idea of who they are, they think if they become successful it will tell them who they are, but it doesn't fill that part. I was secure, but with an incredible ego. What's dangerous is when you have the incredible ego but you're still insecure.
It sounds like a definition of Hollywood.
DL: It's so amazing to meet people there who are secure in themselves. They're talented, but it's their work. Ed Harris was like that, just so impressive. It's funny, because when Ben Affleck was shooting Gone Baby, he was shooting lots of coverage, and everyone was looking at each other saying, he must be be scared. If you shoot a lot of coverage either you're scared, or, if you're someone like Scorsese, you're a genius. Turned out, Ben knew exactly what he was doing.
Scorsese is making Shutter Island, with Leonardo DiCaprio. That novel was a real departure for you.
DL: I'd tried to jump on the bus and I felt like I'd be hanging on the side for the rest of my life.The first time I'd met Richard Price, who was a literary idol of mine, he asked what was the goofiest thing I could do, and I said write a gothic novel, and I figured if Richard Price didn't laugh me out of the room, I might as well try.
It seems a hard book to adapt for the movies
DL: Well, the script is terrific, and Scorsese's directing. With all that in play, it's all down to alchemy (laughs).
In your early books, and in both the first films, child abuse is a major theme.
DL: I worked with abused kids, as a counselor, and I had to stop. It was an obsession of my early writing, but it's tough, there's a fine line between calling attention to it, and exploiting the issue for entertainment. But coming up in the 80s, in writing workshops, the hardest thing to justify was the killing of a child, or writing about the holocaust. It was like you skipped twenty steps for empathy. It was like when I saw an ad for The Boy In Striped Pajamas. Children and the Holcaust, I said 'enough!'. But seriously, I sealed it for myself with Mystic River, and I don't have to go back there again.
We discussed films for a while, how The Wrestler revisited great 70s movies like Fat City or The Scarecrow. I was looking forward to seeing Gran Torino that night, and we talked Clint Eastwood, and eventually whether the shot of the little boy looking out the back seat of the car was a shot too much in Mystic River; a habit I'd suggested in my book about Clint that he had, when he wanted to make sure he hooked the audience. And finally we got down to the greatest line of dialogue in American film, and we were only a beat apart. For Lehane it's William Holden as Pike Bishop, in The Wild Bunch, saying 'let's go'. I'd always been more partial to Warren Oates' reply: 'why not?', but no, Lehane said, 'Holden's line is action, and Oates' is reaction'. 'Nilhilstic reaction,' I said, 'which is why I liked it'. 'But it's 'let's go' that defines the movie, and them,' he said, and thinking about it, he was right in an American hsitorical sense, even if Oates' line seems more purely Peckinpah, a signal of change, perhaps. 'Did you know,'Lehane asked, 'that Peckinpah wrote a whole scene for that, that they told him to cut, and he shot so little usable that 'let's go' was basically all that was left.' 'So he didn't start out minimalist, like you, he was just edited that way?' I said. There is a sense sometimes that big stories demand their own space, and in The Given Day it seems that Lehane has used no more space than that story demands. It's a major achievement.
NOTE: This interview also appears on Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk
THE GIVEN DAY is published by Doubleday, ISBN 9780385615341