Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dennis Lehane Reading

Last night, Dennis Lehane, author of such moral tangle boxes as Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, stopped by Off-Square Books to sign and read from his latest novel, The Given Day. Born and raised in Boston, Lehane's made his mark exploring that city's people and politics with a wicked good ear for dialogue and a compassionate sort of ruthlessness that doesn't flinch from ethical impossibilities that twist a reader's gut. The Given Day follows in that tradition, telling a story of social and political upheaval set, for the most part, in Boston at the end of the first World War: a time when the Spanish flu raged and the police in Boston went on strike, a time Lehane described at the reading as a moment when "power and fear" joined together and resulted in a police state, as that combination always does.

The chapter he read focused on a character named Luther, a character that Lehane felt overlooked in many reviews, and one he thought deserved a little more exposure considering he appeared in about half the book. Here we see Luther in Tulsa, before coming to Boston, as he learns to run numbers for Deacon, a wheelchair bound gangster with a surprisingly good singing voice. Luther's introduction to the world of lawlessness, of that little bit of crime that lets you feel the law doesn't own you, becomes our introduction as readers to the world and it's people. The chapter had a rollicking feel, Luther hitting the streets and poolhalls, other characters flashing by, speaking themselves to life and fading, as Luther gets immersed in the culture and learns that some people skim a bit for themselves, who's gonna know? God? The Deacon ain't god...

As outstanding as Lehane's reading was--and it's pretty cool to watch an author's face take on the personality of his characters--his Q&A managed to be outstanding-er. Highlights include:

When asked if he liked historical writing, he said that he'd noticed in his last two books he keeps going back further and further to the past. "When I try to write in the present right now," he said, "I just freeze. Feels like if I wrote a present day novel it'd be 600 pages of 'Indict, Dick Cheney,' 'Indict Dick Cheney,' and that'd be boring to write and boring. It'd be a polemic. I'm a oblique writer," he said. "I don't write autobiographical stuff."

A story about the first time he heard the letter 'r' pronounced--a cah accident on his street which he and a buddy visited and so overheard a blonde woman talking about what happened to her car. That stuck with them all day. They kept saying it to themselves, "car?", "car?", in a sophisticated sort of accent, "Did you come by car?", "Is that your car sir?"

The admission that despite his doubts over whether one could really fall in love with research, it was in fact very possible, and he had found himself near the end of a solid year of reading about 1919, asking himself if he really needed another book about Woodrow Wilson. "If there's a Trivial Pursuit game about 1919 I'd get all the little triangles and make it to the center first."

Worst part of writing about 1919? No evidence of a certain beloved curse word until 1955 or so.

The toughest question though concerned baseball. Upon being asked who he was rooting for in the Boston/Tampa playoff series--Lehane's been living in St. Petersburg for the last several years--he displayed a sort of sports fan schizophrenia, acknowledging that as of late he'd been a closet Rays fan, and now in the playoff series he found himself cheering both on, quietly. "Boston has a thing for David and Goliath stories," he said, "It's who we are, and now we're Goliath and I don't know what to do, I just don't."

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