Dennis Lehane’s big new book, The Given Day, is full of bloodshed, mayhem, power, corruption, and lies. It recalls his best-known book, Mystic River, and his series of five Boston-set private-investigator novels. But those books are set in modern times. For the new 700-plus-page historical novel, the Dorchester-raised author wrote about the era when World War I was winding down and a recession was calling.
This one is set mostly in the dense, dirty, immigrant-packed North End, where class and ethnic tensions run high. Anarchists are threatening violent revolt. A flu epidemic breaks out. The underpaid and overworked police threaten a strike. The Given Day has magnitude of size and scope. Which leads to the obvious question . . .
Is this your stab at the great American novel?
I think you’re insane if you try to write the Great American Novel. I think it’s doomed to failure. But I did fall into that trap. About a year into this book, I did get that feeling — I could really be onto something good, the critics will love this. And that’s a recipe for disaster.
What snapped you out of that mindset?
What happened was this writer, who’s a real good buddy, Tom Franklin, we were driving across the Mississippi a couple of years ago on a mini-book tour. I was really hung up on the book, the book was kicking my ass. He said, “Did you write the book you want to read? ’Cause that’s law No. 1.” What he taught was, write the book you want to read. Hopefully that translates to something more, and people say, “Boy, did I enjoy that ride.”
Still, it’s a massive book and covers a vast expanse.
I wanted to make a book that was like the epics I liked when I was growing up, that have star-crossed lovers and huge urgent events. Ultimately, I’m kind of a hybrid writer, the bastard child of pulp and literary fiction.
The Given Day took five years to research and write — a long haul.
If you treat the process with any reverence, I think you write in a consistent state of fear, if not terror. “How the fuck am I gonna finish this? What did I get myself into? This is going to be the one everyone figures out I’m full of shit.”
Your Boston of 1918–1919 is pretty ugly.
You know that French term fin de siècle [end of the century]? Basically, it means the end times are coming. After World War I, given everything that happened — nations losing young men in their prime, a whole generation just wiped out, you have a fucking flu and it wipes out 200 million people worldwide. And you’re an immigrant living in the North End, which got hit the hardest because of the overcrowding. Then maybe you’re surviving that and a molasses tank explodes. What is your perspective? It had to be that the world was ending. You had to believe life is short. Live it while you can.
No one’s good or bad. Practically every character is a mix.
I think that’s true in virtually everybody. I think it’s ludicrous to think there’s anybody out who’s purely good. Every now and then, there’s somebody out there who’s pure evil. You can say Hitler was crazy, but then explain Stalin! If that ain’t evil, then there’s no such word. In this book, most people come out in shades of gray.