Since finishing The Given Day, I've written a number of opening sentences in my mind. "Dennis Lehane's epic novel is a true departure from his earlier work." "The Given Day marks the expansion of Lehane's already considerable talents." You all know that kind of sentence. We've all written them. They don't really do justice to the massive undertaking this novel must have been, regardless of whether or not it ultimately ends up being successful.
In short, The Given Day tells a story centered around the 1919 Boston police strike; its history told through the eyes of two main characters: Aiden ("Danny") Coughlin, a second-generation cop, second-generation Irish immigrant, and all around stand-up (albeit troubled) guy; and Luther, a black factory worker whose forced out of his life by two separate incidents (a "shotgun" wedding and a bad decision that leads to capital "b" big trouble). There are far too many secondary characters to list, crooked cops, Bolsheviks, union leaders, rabble-rousers, gangsters, thieves, cops, lovers, and baseball players (Babe Ruth, in particular). The novel creates a vast world that culminates in the violent events on September 9, 1919. Its story is mammoth and it can't help but sprawl. Even so, Lehane remains in control at every moment -- showing skills a lesser novelist who didn't come up writing hard plot-driving fiction couldn't maintain.
Lehane does two things exceptionally well: 1) he writes great dialogue and 2) he creates credible action. Because of these two things, it's easy for me to forgive both the cliches that pop up and the extensive (and sometimes clumsy) forced historical detail. Ultimately, once I started reading this novel, I simply couldn't put it down. Plus, the themes and issues Lehane explores are endlessly interesting -- the idea that socialism, even the mere hint of "red," pulled at the seams of American society in such a way as to cause massive riots and fear mongering is fascinating. That the essence of terrorism remains a rich theme to be mined, not just because it's ever-present in the ethos of our neighbours, but because it's obvious (at least to me, maybe I'm wrong) that Lehane belongs firmly in the camp of those who believe that without history we're doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
It's a big book, and while it's not perfect, I'd say that The Given Day might just be the one before the really, really great one, which is impressive any way you look at it. I know I hate to use this word because it's just so industry, so back-cover-jacket, but The Given Day truly is unputdownable.