THE CRIME OF RACISM: DENNIS LEHANE'S SMALL MERCIES
I cracked open Dennis Lehane's Small Mercies with slight apprehension, I was truly disappointed by his last book, Since We Fell, finding it front heavy and bloated, with main plot kicking in in about two hundred pages. With Small Mercies he goes back to working class crime fiction and returns to form with one of his best books in years.
He takes us back to a Boston of 1974, boiling with racial strife over the decision to bus the black kids into the white working class schools. One person not happy about it is Mary Pat Fennessy, a single working mom kicked around through divorce and a son's death through drugs,. When her daughter goes missing, she puts little faith in the cops and does her own looking. It appears the disappearance could be connected to the murder of a black co-workers son and the local mob, crossing paths with the cop working the homicide.
Lehane uses the story to examine the nuances involved in bigotry. Mary Pat is aware of her racism, yet feels there is some justification. Both she and the book cite how the richer neighborhoods that aren't being integrated can afford the luxury of not being confronted with their prejudices. We see Mary struggle with her views and evolve. She admits to even liking the victim's mother and argues with her coworkers who propagate the dark rumors of her dead son. That said, she has also run her own theories about the young man early on.
Lehane deals with period in an interesting and authentic way. There's very few references to music, movies, and cars of the period, but the people are dealing with it. The Vietnam war devastated Mary Pat's neighborhood and took her son with a heroin overdose. Even the cop, who proves to be the best adjusted, finds himself often talking about his time in the war.People chew out Kennedy for supporting the busing. Everyone is in a community that has been able to insulate itself from the turning world for a few decades, but now it has come knocking.
Small Mercies plays the fictional story of its characters against the true history of their city to look at race and class at both macro and micro levels. It becomes about the rage of people and how it played upon it. Lehane's 1974 shows us a lot about who we are today.
review by Scott Montgomery