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Lehane takes journey to post-war Boston

Some of our most prolific best-selling novelists -- John Grisham, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, to a lesser extent -- have devised a successful formula, a shtick, for churning out their literary gems with rapid-fire quickness.

They either don't vary much from the formula, or many of their most loyal readers cry foul when they deviate from the text, as we've seen with Grisham's forays into new territory.

No such problem for Dennis Lehane, who has moved into a whole new literary world with "The Given Day."

Lehane has gone epic and historical, penning a 704-page masterpiece about the troubled era at the end of World War I. Luckily, for us, he's kept two staples from his tried-and-true formula -- the novel's set mostly in Boston, and he's brought his deft writing touch into this new world.

The writing and the strong hell-bent characters, none of whom ever yields an inch in all the personal battles and clashes of principle, carry the day here. The characters are complex but believable, and they tell us more than any history book about what it must have been like in the tense period after World War I.

Like all decent epic novels, this is a book with tons of themes and subplots. But at its heart, it's a story built around three vastly different kinds of heroes -- two fictional and one real.

The main protagonist is Danny Coughlin, a Boston cop, a leader of men, a stubborn Irishman who can't be molded or shaped even by his vastly powerful father. Danny is a man of principle, a man at ease with himself and a warrior who defies death from bombings, shootings, beatings and stabbings.

A minor hero here is Luther Laurence, a black man who can't avoid violence or trouble, a man with so much blood on his hands that he flees Columbus and Tulsa for Boston, a man of honor who crosses paths -- and racial divisions -- to become Danny's friend, and at times, his savior.

And then there's Babe Ruth -- huh? -- drawn here in full color, with all his warts and weaknesses, a man who has chance meetings with both Luther and Danny. But more on that later.

This book is a lot of things: a love story, a class-warfare battle, a fight over organized labor, a glimpse at the woeful racial relations of the late teens (of the 20th century), a historical look at the violent tensions of that era. But more than anything, this is a novel about family and loyalty.

And about the strange love sometimes found in families, especially in the clashes between fathers and sons.

Police Capt. Thomas Coughlin, Danny's father -- and this was a father, not a dad -- loved his family fiercely. But once one of his family members or household employees crossed him, at least in his mind, he would banish that person, sometimes ordering that the person's name never be uttered again.

Thomas Coughlin had loved his own twin brother and later his sons in the same way, "in confusion and admiration and futility."

When misfortune strikes another of Thomas Coughlin's sons, he learns all about what family means.

"Maybe this, of all things, was the true price of family -- being unable to stop the pains of those you loved. Unable to suck it out of the blood, the heart, the head. You held them and named them and fed them and made your plans for them, never fully realizing that the world was always out there, waiting to apply its teeth."

When Thomas Coughlin's unbending principles push another son away, Lehane writes, he wondered "if this was what he did to those he loved -- protected their bodies while deadening their hearts."

And when the elder Coughlin sees Danny, his favorite son, as a leader rallying his fellow cops at a union meeting, he thinks, "I have given birth to a dangerous man."

The plot here, befitting any epic novel, is complex. In short, Danny Coughlin sleeps with an anarchistic bomb-thrower, is asked to infiltrate the radicals in the labor movement if he wants his police gold shield and winds up becoming a leader of the Boston Police Social Club, the precursor of the police union that went on strike in 1919.

Along the way, he falls in love with another woman, a Coughlin household employee named Nora. When her sordid past and lies are revealed, she is banished from the home and befriended eventually by Luther, who helps brings her and Danny together.

And where does Babe Ruth fit in here?

In his own chapters, especially the prologue, a 27-page clash of cultures, entitled "Babe Ruth in Ohio," that could win an award as one of the most graceful short stories written in modern times. Ruth, his Red Sox teammates and Chicago Cubs opponents are forced off a disabled train on its way east from Chicago to Boston during the 1918 World Series. The professional ball players happen upon a "colored" game, and they wind up scrimmaging the black team, in a game dominated by Luther, who could outrun a fly ball or race into second base faster than anyone the Babe had ever seen.

The superhero Babe asks Luther what position he played. Center field, he replies.

"Well, boy, you don't have to worry about nothing then but tilting your head," the Babe tells him.

"Tilting my head, suh?" Luther replies.

"And watching my ball fly right over it," the Babe says.

A huge grin spreads across Luther's face.

"And stop calling me 'suh,' would you, Luther?" the Babe adds. "We're baseball players here."

Lehane offers some great snippets in bringing Ruth to life, including a blow-by-blow description of one famous story in the Babe Ruth legend, about the piano that found its way to the bottom of a Massachusetts pond. Lehane also manages to sum up the sadness of the Babe, writing, "In general, the only time he felt anything, outside of the self-pity he felt when very drunk, was when he hit a ball."

But it's the writing that kept this reviewer turning the page, more than 700 of them.

Here are just a few, among dozens, or even hundreds, of snappy phrases and sentences:

"The wet-slap thump of a [fly] ball sent to its death in an outfielder's glove."

"It was one of those sneaky days in late winter when spring came along to get a lay of the land."

A person shot to death "took several shallow gulps of air and then the sound of him stopped."

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.

-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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The Given Day

By Dennis Lehane

William Morrow

704 pages, $27.95

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