Message From The Author
Beantown Boy Makes Good
DENNIS LEHANE LAUNCHES ANOTHER ONE OUT OF THE PARK WITH CORONADO: STORIES
By Tara Gelsomino
If there is anything you can say with certainty
about Dennis Lehane, it's this: He's not afraid of throwing a curve ball. The novelist and -- devoted Boston Red Sox fan -- has made a career out of reinventing himself and his work.
His first five novels were dark neo-noir thrillers starring charming, Dorchester, Mass.-based detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. In 2001, he released the breakthrough stand-alone bestseller Mystic River, a careful blending of literary themes and twisty mystery, which richly sketches the working-class neighborhoods south of Boston and features a trio of childhood pals whose involvement in a horrific event haunts them and shapes their adult lives. In 2003, he mixed things up once more with Shutter Island, a spooky psychological suspense set in the 1950s on a small island off Massachusetts.
This September, he releases a long-anticipated new work, Coronado: Stories (HarperCollins), a short-story collection containing five novellas and one play, and erases the one obvious constant in his fiction: Three of the five stories are set in the South. However, all of them -- which, except for novella "Mushrooms" and play "Coronado," already have been published -- feature his trademark: desperate people doing desperate things.
"I was trained as a short-story writer and thought that's where I'd make my career," explains Lehane, a graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The novels were a fluke ... granted, the greatest fluke of my life."
From the tale of a doomed crush in small-town South Carolina
in "Running Out of Dog" (published in The Best American Mystery Short Stories of the Century) to teenagers gone wild in the Texas summer heat in "Goin' Down to Corpus," Lehane calls these stories "tone poems to the region," explaining their genesis. "I had a real desire to write about the South, and I didn't think I could sustain that voice for a whole novel. But I can channel it reasonably well in a 30- or 40-page story."
In an age when short fiction is, arguably, not as revered as full-length novels, Lehane's successful transition between the two hints at the versatility critics often marvel at when they mention his skill at transcending genre. "To use a terrible analogy, a novel is like a home video and a short story is a snapshot. What do you get from a single picture?" he asks. "'Who are those people?' 'That's an interesting gargoyle in the background.' Lots of questions, not many answers."
That idea is best exemplified in the novella "ICU," featuring a man on the run from shadowy operatives for unknown reasons who manages to find refuge in a hospital complex's waiting rooms. "'ICU' was my direct response to the [Karl] Rove administration, as I like to call it. Nothing is settled at the end, and I wanted to give that sense of ominous government powers. A poet friend of mine called it 'Lehane meets Kafka,' but it's really my Don DeLillo homage," says Lehane, referring to the bestselling author of Libra and Underworld.
The title piece, "Coronado," also represents a departure for the novelist. It's a play adaptation of his short story "Until Gwen" (also included in the collection). Both story and play were inspired by and written for Lehane's brother Gerry, an actor. "My brother is terrific, but he's constantly typecast because he looks like what he is, an extremely nice guy. I've been telling him for years, 'That's boring, dude! We gotta do something about it.'"
Lehane had the opportunity when Gerry and two actress friends visited him a few years ago. The brothers came up with a reprehensible character that Gerry could play with relish. "We were all in our late 30s/early 40s, it was the holidays and we were sitting up late every night, drinking, talking about missed chances and lost loves," Lehane recounts. "A lot of that made its way into the tale."
"Until Gwen" features the vitriolic relationship between a recently released twentysomething convict and his con-man father who -- in good literary tradition -- have a fatal falling-out over a dame. When he adapted the story into a play for Gerry's acting troupe, Lehane fleshed out the characters and added more players. Coronado debuted to favorable reviews off-off-Broadway last December and was later mounted at Lehane's alma mater, Eckerd, with possible future productions in the works.
Of course, by now Lehane is accustomed to
seeing his writings take on new life. The Academy Award-winning adaptation of Mystic River, starring Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins and directed by Clint Eastwood, was quite the learning experience.
"Once I finish a novel and it's published, I feel I've done my work and I can walk away from it. At the same time, it was wonderful to see Coronado come alive in two very different productions, and I got really involved with the day-to-day set life of Mystic River."
Lehane has vowed to keep a greater distance from the currently-shooting-in-Boston adaptation of Gone, Baby, Gone, his fourth novel in the Patrick and Angie series, directed by Beantown native Ben Affleck.
"Ben's been wonderful, and it's been nice to spend time on the set with Ed Harris and Amy Madigan. They've cast a lot of the smaller roles with people like Titus Welliver from Deadwood and John Ashton, and for a movie geek like me -- I'm a supporting-actor guy -- that's cause for elation."
But despite the temptation, Lehane, who also worked as a writer for HBO's The Wire in 2004, says he'd prefer to buy a ticket like every other working-class guy who wants to see the flick. "When Mystic River was made, I never had the suspension of disbelief of an average moviegoer. Everyone asks me how many times I've seen it, and that's once: opening day. I can't watch it on DVD or cable because the magic is gone."
It's telling that Lehane, whose salary range these days certainly places him in a different income bracket than his blue-collar brethren, manages to retain such humility in the face of Hollywood. His down-to-earth, no-nonsense persona rings as true in life as it does in his fiction.
"I always write about the kind of people we fly over, because those are the people I understand. I would never set a book in New York or Los Angeles because at the end of the day, I couldn't really give a s--t.
I don't write wealthy people well. I don't know what's in their kitchens. It's much easier for me to crawl into the heart of working-class people, whether they're from the North, the South, Brazil, wherever."
Lehane's putting his money where his mouth is for his next novel, an ambitious, sweeping saga about the Boston police strike of 1919. The novel, which actually begins with the Sox winning the 1918 World Series and ends a year later, features a white Irish cop and a black machinist, whose journeys comprise the heart of the novel, along with several cameos from historical personages like J. Edgar Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Eugene O'Neill and, of course, the original Boston slugger, Babe Ruth.
"It's one of those little-known historical events that has just had enormous ramifications on the way we live today," Lehane says, adding that he's still putting the finishing touches on the novel, which currently has no release date or title, but is "Lonesome Dove-sized," currently clocking in at around 650 pages. "I've been carefully tending and gardening this book for three and a half years, so it'll be ready when it's ready," he says, with a hint of belligerence and then a chuckle. "It's a massive doorstop, this one. No one's going to be able to say to me, 'I read your book in one night.'"
You can almost picture it: Planting his cleats in the dirt, hitching his cap down over his eyes, a Boston bomber gears up to hit one out of the park all over again.
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