The writer and the tightrope. The fiction of Dennis Lehane.

When I read Dennis Lehane, I think of The Flying Wallendas. He deftly walks the curiously thin line between fiction and literature.

The first draft of his novel, A Drink Before The War, was written in three weeks. He was 25 and needed a break from writing “really literary, avant-garde short fiction.” It was published in 1994 after 13 drafts and won the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.

The novel is the first in a series featuring Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angie Gennaro. Working out of an old church belfry, Kenzie and Gennaro take on a seemingly easy assignment for two politicians: uncover the whereabouts of Jenna Angeline, a black cleaning woman who has allegedly stolen confidential state documents.

The investigation escalates, implicating members of Jenna’s family and rival gang leaders while uncovering extortion, assassination, and child prostitution.

There is a moment in the novel, when Lehane shows his literary pedigree.

“We sat and watched the car, waiting for darkness to fall. The sun had set but the sky still held its warmth, a canvas of beige streaked with wisps of orange. Somewhere behind or in front of us — in a tree, on a roof, in a bush, at one with the natural urban world — Bubba lurked in wait, his eyes as constant and emotionless as T.J. Eckleburg’s.”

Bubba is Bubba Rugowski, a local gunrunner and sociopath. T.J. Eckleburg is the metaphorical and literal face of an optician that appears on a billboard in F. Scott Fitzerald’s, The Great Gatsby.

While the novels Mystic River and Shutter Island have catapulted Lehane beyond the mystery and private-eye genre, all of his novels have moments that transcend the expected in popular fiction.

My literary compass moves in the direction of John Updike, Richard Ford and Don DeLillo, but I always find my way back to Lehane’s ability to tell a story that doesn’t need to dazzle you with literary flourishes, but with language that engages and surprises you when you least expect it.

Here is the opening of A Drink Before The War. “The bar at the Ritz Carlton looks out on the Public Garden and requires a tie. I’ve looked out on the Public Garden from other vantage points before, without a tie, and never felt at loss, but maybe the Ritz knows something I don’t.”

And a few lines later:

“The Ritz is one of those hotels that is resilient in its staid opulence: the carpeting is deep, rich oriental; the reception and concierge desks are made of a lustrous oak; the foyer is a bustling way station of lounging power brokers toting futures in soft leather attaché cases, Brahmin duchesses in fur coats with impatient airs and daily manicure appointments and a legion of navy blue-uniformed menservants pulling sturdy brass luggage carts across the thick carpeting with the softest whoosh accompaniment as the wheels find their purchase. No matter what is going on outside, you could stand in the lobby, look at the people, and think there was still a blitz going on in London.”

How can you not love a writer who is willing and ready to employ so many semi-colons and commas in service of a long sentence?
Perhaps Papa Hemingway or Raymond Carver or a strong-fingered editor would have cut the entire paragraph leaving only the London blitz line, but it’s sheer tonnage is what seduces you.

What gives Lehane such freedom is that the novel is written from the perspective of Patrick Kenzie, a private detective from Boston. Since I grew up not too far from Boston, I can tell you that it’s a city that creates characters that can be profane and profound at the same time.

Before becoming a full-time writer, Lehane worked as a counselor with mentally handicapped and abused children, waited tables, parked cars, drove limos, worked in bookstores, and loaded tractor-trailers.
He knows the seamier side of Boston’s blue collar neighborhoods and the equally seamier side of politics.

The author, John Dufresne wrote, “Reading A Drink Before The War is like watching Robert B. Parker and John Updike duke it out phrase by phrase on some steamy night in Boston’s Combat Zone. Christ, Lehane writes beautiful sentences.”

Stephen King pays an even more telling compliment, “The superb detective novels of Dennis Lehane became a kind of lifeline for me.”

There are times in his debut novel that Lehane seems to be a parody (or perhaps homage) of Raymond Chandler with echoes of Richard Price. But the 25-year-old writer is now in his mid- forties and each new work has his own singular voice and a lingering touch of melancholy — like a social worker or probation officer too long on the job.

The high-wire performance that Lehane accomplishes with every novel, particularly Mystic River, is remarkable. I don’t think it’s effortless, but his fiction is grounded in story and character.

And if an able critic wants to call it literature, then that’s fine with me.