No baseball player has ever enjoyed a paradigm-shifting career like Babe Ruth’s. He began as a very good pitcher who could hit better than most. Then he recast himself, dominating the game as a slugger, hitting homers at a previously unimaginable clip, setting records that would stand for decades. Ruth opens, closes and makes occasional appearances throughout The Given Day, a historical epic that is easily the most ambitious work of Dennis Lehane’s career. Though the Boston novelist isn’t equating his achievement with Ruth’s, there are some striking parallels between the two.
Lehane launched his career with a series of detective novels that showed he could write better than most. Then he recast himself by leaving the detective format, making his popular breakthrough with the powerful Mystic River (2001). Now Lehane has made another leap. As big an advance beyond Mystic River as Mystic River was from his earlier books, The Given Day aspires to be nothing less than the Great American Novel, an ambition that critics began questioning just as baseball lost its position as America’s National Pastime.
The Given Day isn’t a baseball novel. Its focus is the Boston police strike of 1919 and the bloody riots that resulted. But it’s really about the American dream, the resistance to change, the subversion of a country’s brightest ideals through its darkest impulses. It’s a novel about, as Lehane writes, “the terrible smallness of men.” It’s a novel about “the fist beneath the velvet glove of democracy.” The poor aren’t necessarily noble; the rich aren’t inherently evil. All are profoundly, humanly flawed.
At the book’s heart is the intertwining story of two men. Danny Coughlin, a police officer from a powerfully connected family, finds himself at various times a strike breaker, a strike leader and an undercover infiltrator. He’s in love with an Irish immigrant whose past violates the morality he has inherited from his family, and he must decide if he’s strong enough to follow his heart.
Danny might be a tragic hero, but his heroism pales against the courage of Luther Laurence, a black man suspected of being a criminal on the run but one who forges a bond with the Boston cop. Though Luther has abandoned his family, fallen into illicit activity and killed to save his own life, he develops a moral code stronger than that of anyone else in the novel.
The Given Day isn’t flawless. Parts of the plot and some of the dialogue veer toward soap opera, and many of the characters aren’t as fully fleshed as Danny and Luther—or Babe Ruth. Yet the novel’s larger-than-life ambitions make its missteps seem minor. It has often been said that fans found one of Ruth’s prodigious strikeouts more thrilling than a slap single. If Lehane was ever a singles hitter, now he’s swinging for the fences.