Dennis Lehane’s short cuts
Before Dennis Lehane found success — or success found him — with the publication of Mystic River in 2001, and even before he built his reputation with the Kenzie/Gennaro crime novels, he wrote short stories. At Florida International University’s MFA program, he vacillated between “very absurd, kind of surrealistic, funny stories, or very dark, realistic — hyper-realistic — stories,” according to an interview with January magazine. Melding the two forms into one cohesive style remained out of reach during his student days. But as the five stories and one play in Coronado demonstrate, he did more than solve his quandary; he found multiple vehicles in which to display his formidable talent.
TOWNIE: Lehane’s five stories and one play showcase his feel for domestic tragedy and sharp ear for dialogue.
The stories — four previously published and one new — detail how small mistakes balloon into larger ones, how honest emotions and modest dreams are his characters’ undoing. They’re Greek tragedies adapted to contemporary times and domestic scale; crime, social inequities, and human failings take center stage. Lehane can stick close to home-town Dorchester, with hard-working souls struggling against the odds to make sense of their lives, or he can range far afield, as in “Running Out of Dog,” with its Southern-drenched atmosphere and its depiction of lives gone wrong. “ICU” manufactures a spare gem out of its hoary premise, an innocent man on the run after being accused of an unspecified crime.
The new one, “Mushrooms,” is ostensibly about a young woman’s quest for revenge; it feels unfinished, an invitation to head scratching rather than deep thought. But “Until Gwen,” which was first printed in the Atlantic two years ago, is ripe for re-reading, the story of a young man released from prison who must grapple with the effects of years of personal torment at the hands of his con-man father. There’s the second-person address, which Lehane uses to convey Bobby’s shattered past and his naked hopes, or even just “how nice it is to sit alone on a double bed and watch TV.” There’s the visceral connection in the doomed relationship between Bobby and girlfriend Gwen. And there’s the portrait of the father, his eyes “big and bland, with the heartless innocence of a newborn’s. Nothing moves in them, nothing breathes.” Lehane puts you on notice from the first line: “Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon with an eight ball in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the backseat.”
The characters and plot line of “Until Gwen” supply material for the two-act play Coronado, which had its premiere production in New York last December. The three-pronged structure of the play matches narrative surprises with Lehane’s ear for human speech — at once punchy, humorous, and gut-wrenching.
The collection is an appetizer for Lehane’s next project, an epic tale based on the events surrounding the 1919 Boston police strike. But it proves that short can also be satisfying.
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