The New York Times calls this book Wrenchingly masterful…a majestic fiery epic. I would not quite agree all the way. This book is an ambitious piece of work that tries to capture a slice of Americana, but there were some flaws that make it fall a little short.
This novel is set at the end of the First World War. It tells a story of two men – one white and one black – swept up in the compelling events of that time: revolutionaries, police rights, immigration, influenza, and race relations.
Danny Coughlin – an Irish patrolman is the son of the Captain of one of the precincts in the Boston Police Department. He is one of the stars and is likely to fast-track his way through the ranks to the top job. However, he chooses to turn his back on this promising future, and instead supports the Police Union making a lot of enemies with the top brass in the process. The Police Union is battling for a higher salary, and better working conditions and is up against the Police Commissioner, the Mayor, and the Governor. The book then depicts in detail the politics of the time that eventually culminated in the Policeman’s strike (apparently quite an important occurrence in Boston history).
The other protagonist is a black man Luther Lawrence who has a dark past to hide. He has been thrown out of his house because of his crimes, and he yearns to return and make it up to his wife. Both his and Danny’s paths collide leading to a strong friendship that helps both men weather the storms that buffet them.
My thoughts on this book
The book starts very slowly – the first 50 pages deal with a baseball match where Babe Ruth plays baseball against a local team. The next 20 pages deal with a boxing match. Once you get past the very boring (for me!) start, the book starts to pick up, and I started getting interested in the story. Past another 150 pages, I noticed the pace of the book flagging again. Although the writing, and the situational build-up was interesting, I was getting to the point where I wanted things to happen. It’s probably just me though – it’s been a long time since I read a chunkster of a novel (733 pages in all), and I needed to get used to the pace of the book. I also completely disliked the Babe Ruth insets that kept coming in between, slowing down the book further.
I received a real good dose of how life was back then and the author has portrayed it very vividly and realistically. But somehow, I just could not get a feeling for the main characters. Although, I liked the protagonist Danny Coughlin, I just could not understand his motivations for the decisions and the actions he took. His love interest Nora has got to be the drabbest creature. She is frequently referred to as grey, with ash eyes, and with teeth rattling loose in her jaw (because of malnutrition). Her characterization is also not very interesting – to the point where I just couldn’t care less whether Danny and Nora finally get together or not.
Halfway through the book I took a break from the story wondering if it was perhaps me, was I in some kind of weird mood that prevented me from getting a feel for the characters? When I take a break from a book it is not a good sign for my level of reading pleasure. Many things I find valuable in a story; like well fleshed out characters, thorough world building and a flowing writing style were undoubtedly there but the characters seemed beyond my reach.
My edition of the book also had some bad typos and grammatical mistakes, which were just too glaring to overlook.
If you’ve read and like any previous Lehane novels, read this one; if you enjoy historical fiction from a working man’s perspective,read this one; if you like Babe Ruth or the city of Boston, read this book. Otherwise, this book might not really be for you.
P.S. I did hear that this book may be the start of a trilogy by Dennis Lehane. Would be interesting to see how the rest of these books carry the story forward.