The Hidden Unlikeable Character

Recently, I suggested The Given Day by Dennis Lehane to a writer friend. He blogged about one of the characters here. I recently finished the book myself, but part way through it, I started realizing I really didn’t think much of most of the characters. The one B.K. talks about, Luther, is probably my favorite imagined character. I also like Babe Ruth, who is used as a frame for the novel, but this device was not universally thought to have worked. (review by Jonathan Yardley.)

First, let me say I did like this book. The writing was always good, sometimes wonderful. The history is incredibly interesting, especially since I didn’t know much–or really any–of it. It demonstrated that problems in our current age have had counterparts in the past. There were terrorists before Oklahoma City. There was labor unrest that wasn’t related to mines. Neither AIDS nor Ebola were the first diseases to wield fear in the populace. Molasses tank explosion injures 50 and kills 11 [Boston Daily Globe, January 16, 1919]

For the most, part the story is riveting. Even though Mr. Lehane, in a 2012 interview,  stated he didn’t think the novel would ever be filmed, it would make an interesting mini-series. One top of all that, the WWI time period is one of the most fascinating to me. I didn’t recognize my problem with the book until I was close to done. It is just over 700 pages and took me quite some time to finish. I’m not sure where I started to realize I didn’t like most of the characters. Luther Lawrence was interesting, possibly due to this flaws. As referred to in the blog post mentioned above, I did care about him and wanted him to be okay. The sad thing is, I didn’t care about the main character, Danny Coughlin.

Now, I don’t think characters, even the main character, has to be likeable in order for me to read a book or to like a book, but in this case it wasn’t really a question of likeable; it was more a question of believable. He seemed to be one of those characters who is in almost all ways perfect. Handsome, smart, an honest policeman, good in bed, a ladies man who loves the one lass he eventually wins. He stands up to his father, tries to maintain contact with his brothers. He befriends Luther, who is a black man on the run and a one-time servant of  the Coughlin family. Why, he even has the perfect name as his real name is Aiden. True, he has a few flaws. He is less than generous toward his one-time police partner who contracts the Spanish flu and ends up destitute.  He also has a bad temper and bashes in a man’s face. Possibly that act was what made me start to question, then realize even in his anger he was just too close to perfect. One character of this sort would not normally be a problem for me, but most of the other policemen seemed to be from Central Casting, especially those in Danny’s immediate family.

What probably nudged me to the edge of shutting the book was the less-than-stellar portrayal of the women. Most of them are, again, just about perfect, or if not that, barely there. Danny’s mother is mostly off scene, in bed. There is an Italian who likes sex, doesn’t care about her baby, and can’t speak much English. She isn’t who she appears to be and none of her stories add up, yet she never becomes more than words on the page. One not fully developed caricature might not be noticeable, but most of the secondary characters seem to be cut from the same cloth. The love interest, for me, was the most egregious as not just Danny, but one of his brothers, and possibly all other men she encounters, love Nora. Why? I know almost nothing about her, how she thinks, why she does what she does. Most mysterious is why Danny’s father rescued her and brought her home naked? She then becomes the family maid who also works a second job but fascinates the brothers. I didn’t buy her for a second.

In many ways I hope Dennis Lehane’s prediction that this book will never be filmed doesn’t come true. The story is all there and with good actors playing the various parts, the characters might come alive and stop being cardboard cutouts of perfect people.

Below is a documentary about the period of history illustrated in the book. It contains many photos, but it is long.

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