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Another fine mess

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Ottessa Moshfegh
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The Given Day - Dennis Lehane 7/26/08: I'm half-done, and half in love. Oh, it's a realistic love, of warts as well as wonders, but I admit: I'm a sucker for a book so fully invested in exploring the deep rifts and crimes of class and race in America.

Lehane's novel opens with a baseball game, inviting comparisons to DeLillo, and his prior work in detective fiction clued us earlier to his fondness for Hammett and Chandler. But his real roots in this book run through the social realism of the early-twentieth-century. No postmodern games, no ironic detachment--no, Lehane, like [author:Pietro di Donato] and [author:Michael Gold], wears his heart on his sleeve, has fire in his eye, is willing to embrace a cliche or a clumsy bit of exposition to see the story through. If the plotting gets a bit hamfisted, the footwork occasionally a little leaden, the characterization a bit too big-screen, reach back and embrace the pleasures of that genre -- these are tools more than symptoms, and the novel's punches still connect furiously and frequently: it moves and is moving in equal doses.

And now and again, besides his gift for ripping action sequences and sweeping social context, Lehane unleashes some fantastic, over-the-top lines that sweep me up again and again:

--a boxer watches an opponent on his last legs, "notic[ing] how childlike his expression had become, as if he'd just hatched."

--a baseball "soared straight at" a player "and then went lazy in the blue sky, like a duck deciding to swim the backstroke..."

Ah me. Really damn good stuff, so far, and I can't imagine it tanking.

It didn't tank. I think I hit above on most of the elements which worked throughout for me, so I'll just add a couple more thoughts:

--as with the social realist works referenced, there are moments that seem ham-handedly plotted, the kind of ex machina coincidences that make me cringe (literally a page or two after a character is mentioned for the first time, the secret of his existence revealed, he walks out of a storm to interrupt a dinner party). The sincerity, the melodrama of such moments -- the operatic over-the-top "sweep" of many instances will probably drive some readers crazy, and made even this reader slow down, fall out of the rush of plot and ideas and energy.

--But such moments are few, and as often as they put the brakes on, equally often they were bound up in the book's many, many pleasures. This book's just a hair over 700 pages long, yet I flew through it, and there's little empty padding--it's not big out of mere ambition to be big, but out of a real and achieved sense of historical, political, and familial sweep. I enjoyed the hell out of my read, despite those twinges.

I'll close with an admission of my shameless appreciation for the novel's politics, and of its aesthetic decisions: at times I kind of wish it were more like The Wire, more sophisticated in its sweep and detail, more grounded in more far-reaching social examination, more subtle in its depiction of character. But how many people saw that show? And, instead, we get a big, popular, page-turning, and populist fiction which defines the necessity of unions, which details the longstanding historical crimes of poverty and race? Which exploits the many, many associations between the anti-anarchist furor of 1918 and the current state of American politics (while carefully drawing the lines between capital and the politics of fear)? We should have more fiction like this.