Dennis Lehane, “Mystic River” (2001) – This isn’t a hard one to review — I have plenty to say about it, as you’ll see — but it’s a strangely hard one to rate. I know you probably don’t read for the star ratings but I take them a little seriously. There’s a lot to dislike but a fairly sound structure and solid writing. This is the story of three men from “East Buckingham” (still not sure why Lehane made up a Boston neighborhood instead of using Dorchester or South Boston as is his usual wont). East Buckingham is Lehane-land, white blue collar Boston, incestous and besieged by the forces of change, in this instance rapid gentrification. The locals manufacture things and the locale manufactures childhood trauma. One of the men, Dave, is kidnapped by child molestors when he’s 11, in the presence of the other two, Sean and Jimmy, but escapes. Twenty-odd years later, Jimmy’s teenage daughter is murdered. There are Connections and it winds up being bloody and tragic before the end.
This was meant to be Lehane’s big cross-over novel, from crime to mainstream literature. One of the consequences of this is that the investigation of the crime, by Sean who’s a state cop and by Jimmy who’s an ex-con store owner with underworld connections, gets relatively short shrift compared to depictions of grief and trauma. Truth be told this is something of a dirge of a novel. It’s not done poorly, but a dirge it still is.
The depictions of the characters are decent, though I wouldn’t say necessarily realistic. There’s a certain cruelty to Lehane’s depiction of childhood as the necessary and unqualified determiner of adulthood that strikes me as wrong even as it is piquant. Dave is weak, a victim- that’s why he got in the car, that’s why he’s the person he is today. Sean had the advantages of a stable two parent home and some money, so he’s a hot shit investigator. Jimmy is a sort of tragic Southie ubermensch, always right in his instincts, and even when he’s wrong, as his wife assures him in the epilogue, is it really wrong if it’s the king of the neighborhood doing it?
Does it count as spoilers if the book is almost twenty years old and was made into a hit movie which was a pretty faithful adaptation? Well, in the spirit of niceness, SPOILER ALERT: the autistic kid did it. I was going through the book hoping Lehane had come up with something better than that, that Clint Eastwood was the asshole in this scenario for making that the plot of the movie, but nope. It’s right there on the page.
“Lazy,” “boring,” and “gross” are probably the three most overused terms in popular Millennial criticism and I do try to avoid them. But Lehane’s conviction that crime is basically an infection, a product of soullessness passed on via inflicted trauma or just blind chance (in the case of the autistic kid), leads him to a lazy, boring, and gross conclusion. The kid has an accomplice, an allistic kid who’s just depicted as an evil brat- this is Columbine era, remember, “Doom” and permissive parenting, both of which Lehane cites, was supposedly creating a generation of blank-eyed murderous sociopaths. But probably worst of all is his depiction of autism as soullessness. The kid is just a blank. Jimmy can see it, with his near-perfect antennae for evil, but doesn’t connect it up in time for him to not murder the wrong man (and you can probably guess who that is) for the murder of his daughter.
The infection model of evil is even more pronounced in Dave, who is depicted as having pedophilic feelings basically as a consequence of having been abused himself. Is there any science to back this sort of thing, or is it just bullshit? I guess it might qualify as a folk belief of Lehane’s people, and here I don’t mean the Irish or something dumb like that. I mean whites who fetishize blue collar authenticity even as it’s vanishing, even as it probably never existed quite like they think it did. The holders of a sort of stoic-cum-Catholic-cum-barstool-philosopher’s take on the problems of the world as being somebody’s unaccountable fault and everyone’s unaccountable fault. The sort of thing you see now that people are starting to criticize policing as a one-stop solution to social problems- “what about the sickos?” And no matter how often you patiently explain that van-diddlers are vanishingly rare next to child abuse coming from within the circle of trust, they saw on channel whatever just the other day about a weenie-waggler outside of a school so…
Well, channel whatever, for all it’s biased depiction of reality, doesn’t make stuff up out of whole cloth (usually) and there is the issue of bad coming out of good structures, killers coming from good families, etc. I guess it’s just a matter of what you choose to emphasize. Stories of making circles of trust less hermetically sealed, giving potential victims the ability to reach out and protect themselves, are less popular than stories of sickos getting theirs, for the time being anyway. So what to make of “Mystic River,” then? It’s not a simple story of a sicko getting his. It’s both less and more than that. So I’ll place it in a category of limbo, and have more to say about Lehane’s oeuvre come my birthday lecture this year. **’