Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane 2023
It’s 1974 and the sweltering summer is fanning the flames of hatred and the simmering violence as Boston prepares to integrate its schools through court-ordered busing of Black kids from Roxbury to South Boston High School. Lehane, who knows Boston as nobody since George Higgins, brings us back to that time through a memorable cast of characters—-Mary Patricia Fennessy and her daughter, Jules, the crime boss of South Boston, Marty Butler, the Irish cop from Dorchester, Michael Coyne who everybody calls Bobby, and a host of others.
All of them are involved directly or indirctly in the death of a Black teenager who had the misfortune of having his car breakdown in South Boston and who ended up dead on the tracks in an MBTA station. To reveal more of the plot would be to ruin it for anyone who chooses to read the book, but believe me, this is one of those books that you unwillingly put down for dinner and eagerly take back up when you are free. It’s not the brief, page-turning tension of a Lee Child or a Harlen Coben; rather, it’s superb writing from start to finish that borders on fine literature and moves the plot from start to finish in top notch fashion.
Lehane dives deep into these characters and you care about them, either with affection or distaste. Here’s Mary Pat thinking about her fellow South Boston townies and how they are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty and violence: “They aren’t poor because they don’t try hard, don’t work hard, aren’t deserving of better things. Mary Pat can look at almost anyone she’s ever known in Commonwealth in particular, or Southie in genral, and find nothing but strivers, ballbusters, people who treat ten-ton burdens like they weigh the same as a golf ball, people who go to work day in and day out and give their ungrateful-prick bosses ten hours of work every single eight hour day. They aren’t poor because they slack off, that’s for fucking sure.” And here’s Coyne on money: “No matter what we claim in public, in private we all know that the only law and the only god is money. If you have enough of it, you don’t have to suffer the consequences and you don’t have to suffer for your ideals, you just foist them on someone else and feel good about the nobility of your intentions.”
The book is particularly timely today as schools are once again in the forefront of the culture wars. Desegregation has largely failed as have our attempts to teach tolerance and reduce violence. The suppression of the teaching of the history of slavery in Florida’s schools is one more chapter of our failure to address the tears in our social fabric.
Read Lehane for his terrific writing, top notch plot and character development. I went back this morning and re-read the 20 pages that bring this taut tale to a close. It’s also important to read Lehane for his insights into the tribal nature of our urban strife, still bubbling along nearly 50 years after Arthur Garrity ordered forced busing in Boston.