One Bite at a Time




Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sean O'Brien on The Given Day

Sean O’Brien has written a rambling, somewhat disjointed piece for The Times Online titled “Laws of the Thriller: Sean O’Brien on the ups and downs of thriller writers.” (Thanks to Sarah Weinman’s terrific blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, for making me aware of this. While we’re at it, Happy Birthday, Sarah.) Where “laws” comes in is debatable, and O’Brien seems more interested in finding downs than ups, but he’s a critic. He may consider it part of his job to be controversial, and all of his criticisms are of matters about which reasonable minds may differ.

Almost all.

He devotes a good-sized paragraph to Dennis Lehane’s latest, The Given Day, which I read a few weeks ago. He makes several comments I disagree with, all of which fall under the “reasonable minds” disclaimer above. There is, however, one comment that makes me wonder if he read the same book I did:

“…the political dimension of the book – Boston is teeming with socialist, Marxists, syndicalists, Wobblies and anarchist bombers – causes Lehane some anxiety. He repeatedly takes an oath of loyalty to capital by denouncing and deriding the ideas and the characters of the Left.”

Where O’Brien sees this anxiety in Lehane’s writing escapes me. The book clearly is on the side of the workers. Comments to the effect that the Communists and Socialists spend too much time drinking and arguing are in the context of law enforcement’s efforts to lump those groups together with anarchists as “bomb throwers.” The point of the description is to show the relative harmlessness of the political groups when compared to the violence advocated, and perpetrated, by the anarchists.

Lehane makes this clear by depicting the efforts of law enforcement and the political establishment to associate these “subversive” groups as a way to maintain the status quo of the social order in place as the book begins. Lehane has been quoted as describing his politics as “left of Canada;” nothing in The Given Day would cast doubt on that. Class warfare is a key theme throughout the book, and it’s plain where his sympathies are. It’s one thing to differ about quality, something else to get the point of the book so completely wrong when the author has made it so plain. O’Brien might as well say Steinbeck took the side of the banks in The Grapes of Wrath.

I’ll confess to being in the tank for Dennis Lehane’s work since I read A Drink Before the War; I think The Given Day is brilliant, worthy of the five year wait. That doesn’t mean I’m right. On the other hand, O’Brien’s comment in a respected publication has missed the mark by such a wide margin that one must wonder if The Times has joined the Obama Administration as organizations in need of an overhaul to their vetting processes.

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