“A Drink Before the War” by Dennis Lehane

With a few hours left before boarding on my plane back to Korea, I just had to go to a bookstore in the airport, not having had the chance to visit one single bookstore during my visit in Chicago. And lo and behold, I found books by an author newly added to my list of ‘favorite writers’, Dennis Lehane. Having been told that I would appreciate ‘Gone Baby Gone’, I picked it without hesitation, and after much debate, I chose “A Drink Before the War” as the second. And once again, I am not disappointed; my appreciation for the author has only increased.

As a younger child, I preferred books and stories that had clear-cut endings, where the good triumphed over the evil, in short, the perfect happy ending. If I could not have such in the imaginary world sketched by my books, what was the use of evading from reality to break into this new world? However, as I gain more years, there are certain books whose ambiguous and ‘realistic’ endings I have come to appreciate more than a simple happy ending (although with TV shows and movies, I’m still a hopeless idealistic and would much rather have the good ol’ happy ending). The three Lehane books I have read so far have given me rather satisfactory endings, in that they offer, in appropriate ratio, some aspects of reality. And in reality, rarely anything is ever just ‘black and white’, no matter how much we want it to be so. The good doesn’t always triumph over evil, and even if it does, it’s at the expense of some significant value we thought we held dear, and perhaps even unworthy compromise. Yet we all learn to live with the faults of society and ourselves, foolishly, adamantly and secretly hoping and dreaming that good will be the winner after all.

In this book more than the two previous ones I’ve read, Lehane exposes to his readers a deeper touch of reality by exploring the politically and socially sensitive issue of racism. Although the story dons the characteristics of a mystery novel because, simply put, there is a mystery that needs to be solved, and because of the presence of the two private investigators, Kenzie and Gennaro, it is much more than a simple thriller. By putting in parallel the world of the powerful political white man, the successful black man, the ordinary living day-by-day white man and the inhumane and destructive black man/gang leader, Lehane bluntly touches upon the ever-present issue of racism and the underlying differences between the white world and the black world, which people are constantly trying to consider as invisible when it clearly IS there. (The over-simplified usage of ‘white’ and ‘black’ is on purpose).  By doing so, he also cruelly exposes the American society (which could be any other society where people try to cover up ‘racism’ by using ‘diversity’ in disguise), where people’s lives have become intricately woven into webs of racism, politics, power, domination, hatred, inequality and blame.

Know what the American way is? Finding someone to blame. It’s true. You out working a construction job and you drop a hammer on your foot? Hell, sue the company. That’s a ten-thousand-dollar foot. You’re white and you can’t get a job? Blame affirmative action. Can’t get one and you’re black? Blame the white man. Or the Koreans. Hell, blame the Japanese, everyone else does. Fucking whole country’s filled with nasty, unhappy, confused, pissed off people, and not one of them with the brain power to honestly deal with their situation. They talk about simpler times – before there was AIDS and crack and gangs and mass communication and satellites and airplanes and global warming – like it’s something they could possibly get back to. And they can’t figure out why they’re so fucked up, so they find someone to blame. (…) I mean, hell, why bother looking in the mirror at your own damn self when there’s so many other people out there who you ‘know’ you’re better than. [p.130-131]

Through this powerful passage, Lehane denounces the ugly truth and reality that lie behind what we have come to term as ‘diversity’ and ‘respect for the different one’ to cover up the hatred that has been building up over decades. It is easy to victimize oneself and blame one’s misery to the ‘other one’, the one that seems to have all the power and privileges. True, sometimes, what we call ‘the system’ is at fault. The system doesn’t give the necessary financial and social means to black kids to attend decent schools and thus allow them to pursue a decent education that will lead them to decent jobs. The system fails to protect both ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ workers. The system protects white, powerful politicians despite their sketchy deals under the table. It’s all a vicious circle, but the one that has the tiny bit of potential of breaking this vicious circle is the people, not the system. Yet, people are busy finding someone to blame rather than fixing the unfair, leaving the vicious circle spin wilder and wilder.

L.A. burns, and so many other cities smolder, waiting for the hose that will flood gasoline over the coals, and we listen to politicians who fuel our hate and our narrow views and tell us it’s simply a matter of getting back to basics while they sit in their beach-front properties and listen to the surf so they won’t have to hear the screams of the drowning. They tell us it’s about race, and we believe them. And they call it a “democracy,” and we nod our heads, so pleased with ourselves. We blame the Socias, we occasionally sneer at the Paulsons, but we always vote for the Sterling Mulkerns. And in occasional moments of quasi-lucidity, we wonder why the Mulkerns of this world don’t respect us. They don’t respect us because we are their molested children. They fuck us morning, noon, and night, but as long as they tuck us in with a kiss, as long as they whisper into our ears, “Daddy loves you, Daddy will take care of you,” we close our eyes and go to sleep, trading our bodies, our souls, for the comforting veneers of “civilization” and “security”, the false idols of our twentieth-century wet dream. [p.311-312]

I could have quoted half the book in this review, even if it were just to show how splendidly and insight-fully Lehane manages to touch upon different controversies existing in reality. But I’m going to limit to the two above, hoping you will experience his genius yourself. “A Drink Before the War” is, at first glance, about two private investigators hired to retrieve certain important documents supposedly stolen by a cleaning lady. But after peeling this primary layer, it is first and foremost about having a long and keen look into what could be considered as the ‘innate fear of what is different’ that lies in every one of us, leading to what the author so elegantly describes as ‘this fucked up world’.

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