On a sweltering Boston morning during the summer of 1974, Mary Pat Fennessy, a lifelong resident of Southie’s public housing projects, checks on her sleeping teenage daughter, Jules, and lights a cigarette. Mary Pat’s been working beyond overtime at two jobs — as a hospital aide in an old folks home, and at a shoe warehouse — but she’s still behind in payments, and her gas has been cut off (“she still has three more shifts and a trip to the billing office before she can boil water or roast a chicken again”). Within minutes, she also has to field one of her neighborhood “protectors,” Brian Shea, whose dapper ways of dressing belie a life of gangsterism and violence. Brian drops by with leaflets for Mary Pat to distribute, ahead of the upcoming anti-busing rally. Many residents of Southie are ferociously against the impending start of public-school desegregation, and tempers are running atmospherically high.
Then, two things further disrupt Mary Pat’s life: Jules goes missing after a night out with her dubious friends, and a young Black man is discovered dead at a local train station. That news story, as Mary Pat reads it in the paper, “doesn’t say anything about the dead black guy being a drug dealer, but it’s a pretty safe assumption, or otherwise why would he be there? Why come into their part of town? She doesn’t go into theirs ... She stays on her side of town, her side of the…line, and is it too much to ask that they do the same? Why do you have to antagonize?”
That ingrained racism, passed from generation to generation, runs like an elemental fuse through Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, “Small Mercies.” Casual — and not so casual — bigotry marks the conversations that Mary Pat has as she navigates her relationships with co-workers, friends, and community members. Pursuing her daughter’s disappearance, she’s confronted by unwelcome realizations and revelations; in one particularly transfixing scene, she speaks with her ex-husband, Ken Fen, a gentle giant of a man who was ultimately embarrassed by Mary Pat’s capacity for hate. In general, throughout the community, it seems that there’s a sense of dis-ease, of things on the cusp of transformative change, and a frustrated and furious pushback against that. “‘I’m just mad,’” says one character, “‘and I don’t even know why.’”
During her search, Mary Pat also slams into an unyielding wall when it comes to the hypocrisy, pettiness, and small-mindedness that insistently insular communities tend to generate. Two women-led Southie groups, Restore Our Alienated Rights — ROAR, formed by a Boston School Committee member to protect the “vanishing rights of white citizens” — and Southie Women Against Busing, or SWAB, haven’t merged “because Carol Fitzpatrick, the leader of SWAB and Louise Day Hicks, the leader of ROAR, hate each other, dating back to some spat they had in kindergarten. Rumor has it the source of the lifelong animosity is a broken crayon, but that’s never been confirmed.”
Mary Pat, a Southie chick through and through, is the primary engine driving this story: she’s had her share of monumental grief; she’s also been raised to tough things out. But pivotal to the tale as well is Detective Michael “Bobby” Coyne, a Vietnam vet steeped in compassion, who is investigating the young Black man’s death. Even for Bobby, who is from a neighborhood mere miles from Southie that’s just as white and Irish, Southie has a different feel to it: “Every guy has a thousand-yard stare. Every woman has an attitude. Every face is whiter than the whitest paint you’ve ever seen and then, just under the surface, misted with an everlasting Irish pink that sometimes turns to acne and sometimes doesn’t. They’re the friendliest people he’s ever met. Until they aren’t….”
Coyne is observant, perceptive, and thoughtful, and, even while making his way through a community seething with deeply entrenched rage, still capable of hope and romantic love, and just as capable of recognizing the origins of the damage he sees. At a certain point, Mary Pat recognizes it too: “’When you’re a kid…they start in with all the lies,’ she tells Bobby. “‘And you spread the same lies….you keep repeating the lies until you wear [your kids] down. That’s the worst of it — you wear them down until you scoop all the good out of their hearts and replace it with poison.’” It’s a realization that galvanizes her into deeply unsettling action.
As always, Lehane is terrific at finely drawn character sketches thrumming with both immediacy and humor. The kaleidoscope of portraits running through “Small Mercies” is by turns funny and chilling, whether it’s Mary Pat ruminating on the presence of Jules’s boyfriend, Rum, “who, like his father and uncles before him, has the conversational skills of a baked ham….”, or Mary Pat running into an acquaintance at the local bar: “Mary Pat has known Tina since kindergarten, though they’ve never been close. Tina has always made Mary Pat think of a walnut. As something hard and curled into itself, dry and difficult to break.”
Stemming from Lehane’s childhood memory of being confronted with an anti-busing protest in Southie, and riven with violence, “Small Mercies”' story turns just as insistently on a stream of resonant and varying perspectives, perceptibly changing the story’s progress and — echoing its title — slipping in, here and there, tiny but meaningful vestiges of hope.
SMALL MERCIES: A Novel
By Dennis Lehane
Harper, 320 pages, $30
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and critic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @daneetsteffens.