Dennis Lehane Goes Back to Southie

He’s set ‘Small Mercies,’ possibly his final novel, in the hot-button Boston era of “forced busing”

Six years ago, I was talking with Dennis Lehane about the novels he’d written, many of the set in Boston’s grittier neighborhoods. This particular book was Since We Fell, and one that, for him, broke form somewhat. Yes, he set it in Boston, Lehane’s longtime stomping ground both in literature and real life, but it mostly took place in the tonier section of the Back Bay.

Lehane recognized it was a departure of sorts, but told me, “Otherwise, it certainly fits into the general canon. It’s concerned with issues of identity and it’s about disconnection. It’s pretty much part and parcel of much of my work. It’s a suspense thriller; it’s concerned with psychological issues.”

All that holds true to form with Lehane’s latest, his 14th, Small Mercies. And with this book, Lehane is back in the rougher, highly segregated enclaves–South Boston and Roxbury, mostly–and he’s traveled back in time nearly five decades.

We’re at the beginning days of “forced busing”, a decision made by federal judge W. Arthur Garrity to desegregate Boston’s public schools by busing black kids to white neighborhoods and vice versa. This did not go over well in South Boston, particularly. It raised their ire that the people who made this decision and supported it lived in the pricier suburbs and exurbs. They imposed and supported rulings that didn’t touch them.

‘Small Mercies,’ by Dennis Lehane.

Lehane sets Small Mercies just prior to the first bus ride, as tempers flare, tensions rise, protest groups form, and racism raises its ugly public head.

At times, people massage their racism into a more benign worldview that simply believes blacks and whites have different interests and cultures and all should remain with their own. (They lower-cased the term “blacks” back then and Lehane hews to it. Other words we flinch from now also show up in the thoughts and voices of the characters.) And then the deep prejudices bubble up: The n-word starts flying more freely, prominent busing proponents hang in effigy, violence flares.

This is the Southie scenario where Lehane drops us. Specifically, into the world of Mary Pat Fennessey and her family, particularly as it concerns her sorta sweet/sorta rebellious teenage daughter Jules. Who disappears. And is also, possibly, connected to a most ugly incident: Four white kids may have chased this black kid, Auggie Williamson, off a subway platform into the path of an oncoming train in the Savin Hill area. (Something quite close to that happened in real life in 1982.)

Mary Pat–a street fighter since childhood, the widow of thief, a woman who’s tightly woven into the South Boston community – manages an uneasy bond with a Dorchester detective called Bobby Coyne in trying to track down Jules, although his motives for finding Jules are not quite the same as hers.

As similar as Southie and Dorchester were, Coyne feels he’s “just entered the rain forest of an unknowable tribe … They’re the friendliest people he’s ever met. Until they aren’t. At which point they’ll run over their own grandmothers to ram your fucking skull through a brick wall.”

Cooperating with the police is pretty much a no-no here; such is the power of the kingpin of the South Boston mob, Marty Butler, a clear stand-in for real-life boss, the late Whitey Bulger. It’s his turf and anyone who dares challenge his hegemony gets hurt. Some of them hurt with extreme prejudice. He has the backing of equally ruthless thugs, including one Frank Toomey whose nickname is Tombstone, owing to his prodigious body count. Toomey, too, may have something to do with Jules’ disappearance.

The way it goes in Southie: Snitches get stitches. Butler, a cold-eyed charmer when he wants to be, is ruthless, merciless. The idea that he’s a criminal-but-our-criminal is prevalent, as is the notion that he’s gallantly fought to keep heroin out of Southie, which is not the truth at all. In fact, he’s both a rat for the FBI and a supplier of drugs to the black crime syndicate in Roxbury, which masquerades as a political organization and sells smack back to the white kids.

As do some of the Southie white kids, too, of course. Mary Pat’s son, Noel, a Vietnam vet was a heroin overdose victim; Bobby is a recovering addict who goes to NA meetings. Lehane doesn’t flinch from describing the oh-so-temporary pleasures of heroin – the all is right with the world escape – nor does he flinch from the brutal reality of the comedown and the cost.

Small Mercies is plot-driven, to be sure, but as Lehane noted when we talked six years ago, he limns these thrillers with deeper issues, considerations of identity, disconnection and psychology. Everybody–and I mean everybody–has issues and one of the main themes is the bad behavior, the prejudice, and the violence passes on generationally, getting worse with each new batch of kids. Many feel there’s no escape from it so they either succumb to it or embrace it. It’s all they know.

Yet, good and evil exist in all of us. Throughout the book, Mary Pat keeps reassessing her values, and, as readers, we do as well. Is she, at the core, a good person with an ingrained bad attitude or a bad person whose good side is but a masquerade? At one point, she has a moment of self-realization, feeling that her “grubby desperation” is there to make her “feel superior to someone. Anyone.” At another, Lehane writes of Mary Pat and her kin, recalling better, more innocent days: “It feels good for a moment to remember who they were before they again have to sit with who they are.”

As with most every Lehane book, there’s an undercurrent of humor, however grim.  Mary Pat’s semi-estranged sister, Big Peg, argues with her delinquent daughter, Little Peg. An acquaintance has accused Peg of some minor misdeed.

Little Peg retorts, “Then, she’s a fucking liar.”

Her mother gave her another slap upside the head. “Watch your fucking mouth.”

Lehane represents the black side of this coin primarily through Auggie’s mother, a co-worker with Mary Pat, nicknamed Dreamy. They work together in a hospital and Dreamy had written a sweet note upon the death of Mary Pat’s son; they have a reasonable, if tenuous, work friendship…until the possibility rises up that Jules may have been involved in Auggie’s death. When Mary Pat appears at Auggie’s funeral service, it does not go well.

Mary Pat has little to live for without her daughter, and she ratchets up the anger and violence as the story unfolds, believing that wherever Jules is, Butler and his gang played a part. At one point, Butler gives her a bag of money, implores her to leave Boston, maybe go to Florida to look for her daughter – rumor is she might have fled there. Mary Pat takes the money but doesn’t leave the state. She puts Butler and company in her sights; the resolution is a wet one.

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan wrote about pop music and culture for the Boston Globe from 1979-2005 and currently is doing the same for WBUR’s ARTery and Rock and Roll Globe among other websites and outlets.

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