Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dennis Lehane: Mystic River (2001)

I lived in Boston (well, just across the Charles from it) for the better part of a decade in the early
2000s.  I was aware of this book then - saw the movie, in Boston, when it came out - but never read it.  Never read anything by Lehane until last weekend.  I was in the Amtrak station in Philadelphia, trying to find something to read on the six-hour ride up to Boston, where I'm at for a little while.  This was there.  I bought it

I had a complicated relationship with Boston.  I find I'm not the kind of person who can be happy just anywhere;  but then, neither am I someone who's miserable anywhere, either.  I mean, I know that true happiness isn't really place-dependent, and in fact I had lots of good things happen to me in Boston, lots of moments of intense pleasure and yes happiness.  I mean, I met my wife there, we started our life together there:  it will always be special for me for that.

And yet I never loved Boston, not like I loved St. Louis, where I lived before Boston, and not like I love Eugene, where I live now.  I sometimes liked it, often disliked it, and sometimes loathed it with a white-hot passion.

Mystic River comes close to nailing the reasons why.

Part of it is the insularity.  Lehane does a masterful job in this book of delineating a neighborhood-based, ethnicity-based, class-based clannishness that's obvious everywhere in this city, but that an outsider can never hope to understand.  I won't lie, part of why I was never able to come to terms with Boston was this feeling that I could never be part of the place, never be seen as anything but an intruder.  Fine:  that's true of any settled community, to an extent.  But I met lots of people in Boston - people in official positions, people whose job it was to help outsiders integrate into the city - who took pleasure in rubbing your face in it.

Insularity?  Hostility.  What I learned after a while was that people here treat each other more or less the way they treat outsiders.  There may be an inner circle of community - in the book, people who come from same part of the Flats, the same few blocks - where people accept each other, look out for each other, but it's not a very wide circle, certainly not anything like as large as a city.  The result is that everybody's default response to everybody else is:  Fuck you.  Fuck you for intruding on my day.  You need me to do my job and help you?  Well, fuck you first, and then we can see about the rest.

The insularity would go down a bit easier if you got the sense that it was protecting some marvelous warm center.  But another thing Lehane's book suggests is that it's not.  The Flats sucks.  Life there is full of drunkenness, violence, and mutual exploitation.  If you can come out a winner in that, like Jimmy, you can enjoy the warm glow of family love and community respect - but only if you're willing to pile up the bodies and tolerate the stench.  All that unites this community is shared misery, right?  The Red Sox thing, an entire city defined (until recently) by the shared experience of sucking.

That's what hides inside the wall of hostility.  But what's outside is self-evidently unpleasant, too.  I mean, this is a city with amazing history and culture, and some nice natural-world advantages:  rivers, a harbor, islands.  But overall it's one of the ugliest places I've ever been.  The infrastructure feels like it's held together with chewing gum - the T? a sewer with rails.  There are piles of random shit everywhere, construction projects left half-finished, junk in every island in the middle of the road.  Everything's broken, and to fix anything takes at least a decade.  It's dysfunction at its most belligerent.  The book captures that, too, with its stagnant, toxic waterways hiding God knows what failures and malice.

It's a brilliant book.  Depressing as hell.

No comments: