Reading “A Drink Before the War”
Early on Dennis Lehane writes, “It’s a place where the people are grateful for the seasons, because at least they confirm that time is actually moving on.” After reading the book, I’m not sure time has moved on, not for the Boston of his novels and not for the world we find ourselves living in today.
As a reader, I opened “A Drink Before the War” expecting an honest look inside Boston, the real Boston; I wanted gritty and working class, honest, drunk, and proud of every crack in the sidewalk because that was the sidewalk in your neighborhood, in front of your house, and every busted knuckle from the shifts you pulled to pay for that house.
That much I’d been told to expect about reading Dennis Lehane.
I’d watched Mystic River a few times and even read “Gone, Baby Gone” (book 4 in the series that ‘Drink’ starts out) before seeing that movie. So I thought I knew what to expect as a reader.
As a writer, I went into this book needing something very specific to help me and looked to Lehane just as I look to Loren Estleman’s ‘Amos Walker’ series and Robert Parker’s ‘Spencer’ books. Lehane and Estleman are very similar writers in that their cities, Boston and Detroit, become characters just as important as the detectives and the crooked businessmen and bent politicians their heroes run up against.
I found what I was looking for, enough that I’ve already started the second in the ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series, “Darkness, Take My Hand”. (It helped that the edition I have includes the first two books in one volume, but more importantly, it restarts the page numbers so I can accurately update my reading status on Good reads.)
What I didn’t expect (and seems to be a pattern now after the correlations to the Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) was how current some of the subject matter would still be twenty years after it was written.
“A Drink Before the War” was originally published just a couple years after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that erupted after the Rodney King verdict. Lehane referenced the riots but also went into great detail in describing the racism and segregation that was woven into the fabric of the Boston neighborhoods he wrote about. So much of what drives his characters throughout the book is directly tied into race and the anger and violence that are reactions to the clearly divided worlds.
It’s terrifying to read a book written twenty years ago which was so firmly rooted in its present day and realize that it could just as easily have been written today.
Change every mention of Los Angeles to Ferguson or Baltimore, and make every reference of Rodney King instead about Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, or any of the growing number of black men being beaten or killed by police who are not held accountable. And then, as you continue to read, and it makes you sick that nothing has changed and by how familiar it all sounds, imagine what it must be like for the people trapped in that world.
“You hear it most when politicians who live in places like Hyannis Port and Beacon Hill and Wellesley make decisions that affect people who live in Dorchester and Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, and then step back and say there isn’t a war going on. There is a war going on. It’s happening in playgrounds, not health clubs… And as long as it doesn’t push through the heavy oak doors where they fight with prep school educations and filibusters and two-martini lunches, it will never actually exist.”
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