From the Kenzie and Gennaro novels that established him as a master of new noir, to the haunting crime thriller Mystic River and his magnum opus of the 1919 Boston Police Strike, The Given Day, Dennis Lehane has captured Boston neighborhoods with more grit, vitality, and unerring precision than any writer in recent memory. With the exception of 2017’s Since We Fell, which found Lehane detouring into the yuppified, gentrified, 21st-century Back Bay, his Boston novels have mostly mapped the hardscrabble streets of the city’s working-class Irish neighborhoods: Dorchester, South Boston, and Charlestown.
But never before Lehane’s latest, Small Mercies, has a neighborhood stood so stubbornly at the center of the narrative. Small Mercies begins in August 1974, just as South Boston erupts with violence, rage, and massive resistance to the racial desegregation of Boston’s public schools. As the first buses rolled into the neighborhood carrying Roxbury schoolchildren, enraged Southie residents hurled torrents of rocks and bricks at the buses and spat on the kids, while police in riot gear tried to restrain a mob shouting racial epithets and carrying signs that said “n——s go home.” White parents chose mass truancy over compliance. Photos of the violence in Southie—coupled with the searing image of a white anti-busing protester at City Hall Plaza trying to stab Black lawyer Theodore Landsmark with an American flag—cemented Boston’s reputation as the most racist city in America. And the South Boston Irish became Exhibit A for the city’s unmasked and unhinged bigotry.
Though an all-white, fully autonomous School Committee had long bused thousands of Boston school children out of their neighborhoods to preserve unconstitutional segregation in the city, South Boston whites knew little of Boston’s history of institutionalized school inequality or the decade Black organizers like Ruth Batson and Mel King had spent fighting to dismantle it. Thus, Garrity’s decision landed like an unprovoked, targeted hit from an elitist suburban judge. Southie mothers formed resistance groups and rallied around local gangsters like the infamous Whitey Bulger, hailed as Southie’s protector against the encroachments of Wellesley liberals and Roxbury druglords. (Of course it was Bulger, not Black schoolchildren, who would bury Southie in heroin and gun violence over the next decade.)
Small Mercies casts readers into the eye of this perfect storm. Mary Pat Fennessy, a white single mother in Southie’s Commonwealth projects, learns of the disappearance of her 17-year-old daughter, Jules, on the same night a Black teenager from Roxbury, Auggie Williamson, is killed by a train in a South Boston subway station. Mary Pat recognizes Auggie as the son of a coworker, Calliope, though the two mothers hardly know each other.
Lehane describes Mary Pat as a prototypical Irishwoman of the South Boston housing projects: “all scrunched face and wide shoulders and small powerful body, ready to audition for the roller derby or some shit—looks like she came off a conveyor belt for tough Irish broads. Most people would sooner pick a fight with a stray dog with a taste for flesh than fuck with a Southie chick who grew up in the PJs.” Small Mercies is largely Mary Pat’s story, as she undertakes a desperate and relentless search for her daughter, consulting and confronting relatives, neighbors, her ex-husband, and foot soldiers of Marty Butler’s local mob.
Small Mercies‘ other narrative voice belongs to police homicide detective Bobby Coyne, who comes into the neighborhood to investigate Williamson’s death and questions a guarded and suspicious Mary Pat. A native of working-class Irish Dorchester, Coyne sees Southie much as Lehane did in his youth. To Bobby, it’s both the next neighborhood over, and the darkness on the edge of town.
Ripping a fifty-year-old scab off Boston’s unresolved racist past, Small Mercies emerges as the ultimate Southie novel, a witness’s wrenching reckoning with a neighborhood that took care of its own, closed its borders, and fell to the enemy inside its walls.
Lehane and I talked about how Small Mercies took shape, and how he experienced the school desegregation battle that once consumed his hometown—in 1974 as it happened, and reliving it over the last two years as the book “flowed out.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Small Mercies is your first novel since the publication of Since We Fell six years ago. In the intervening years, you’ve been writing mostly for TV and movies. Is it difficult switching back to novel-writing after all this time?
For four years of relative peace and prosperity, I couldn’t write a line of prose. I could write plenty of scripts, but I was finding novels in general very difficult. And then I went down to New Orleans to make a TV show. It was the first time I’d run a show from soup to nuts. And it was the height of COVID. It was a thousand degrees. We were getting shut down by lightning strikes at least once a week. It was absolute madness. And in the midst of all that, I started to write prose again. I started to write a novel, and it just flowed out.
Creation of any sort is a type of refuge for me. It’s a way of getting off-planet if I don’t like the environment. And when I was in New Orleans during COVID, it was a way to restore sanity where there was none. It was a way to create order out of the chaos that I was living in. Don’t get me wrong, it was my favorite chaos ever. I was so happy as a showrunner. But it was chaos, man. And somehow, just an hour a day writing this book, it just flowed. It just came out. And it was a wonderful experience.
Given that this was the height of the pandemic, and you were living in New Orleans, I imagine it wasn’t a time when you could just run back to Boston and remind yourself where D Street met Dorchester Avenue, or what Castle Island looked like. Was it hard to reimagine the setting of this book from that distance, even of a place where you grew up?
I grew up just south of the Southie-Dorchester Border, first neighborhood in. And my first job as a kid was at Sullivan’s, the little hamburger joint at the base of Fort Independence or Castle Island. It was a very vivid memory. It was my first summer job, and it was hellacious. I wanted to quit every day. My memories of Castle Island are pretty much etched in stone.
My memories of being nine [in 1974, when Small Mercies takes place] are also etched in stone. There wasn’t much I had to do. I had to look up a street or supermarket name here and there. I tracked down a South Boston Whitepages from 1974. But the only other thing I had to really research was the incident at the center of the book: the City Hall protest where Teddy Kennedy was shouted down. They wouldn’t allow him to speak. I watched the footage and I had heard some accounts that said people spat at him. That was where I did my novelist thing where I went a little further. But the plate glass shattering in the JFK building named after his brother? That happened. The fact that nobody would allow him to talk? That happened. People saying, “Where do your kids go to school, Teddy?” That happened.
Those were the things I researched, and the rest of it was just memory. I couldn’t believe how vivid the memories were. I think there’s something about your brain opening up to the world at that point in your life. You just see it. My daughter was nine while I was writing this book, so I think that was triggering as well, because as a parent, you revisit your childhood through your kids, and you often find a whole new forgiveness for your parents, a whole new understanding. But every now and then you go, “Who would do that to a kid?” Seeing this world through my nine-year-old eyes and knowing that I share a lot of personality traits with my youngest daughter made me go, “Whoa. That was a lot of hate and violence to take in at nine.”
One thing this book has in common with some of your earlier books, like the Kenzie and Gennaro series, is that it takes place in the same Boston neighborhoods. They’re portrayed very vividly as settings in those books. But South Boston is more like a character in this novel.
It is, to a degree that it’s never been before, because it’s Bobby looking at it. Bobby in one regard is my doppelgänger in the book. He’s from Dorchester. He’s from an Irish community. He knows every single thing about that world. And yet he looks at Southie and he says it’s a tick different. Southie and Charlestown, where resistance to busing coalesced in the 1970s, certainly had a tribalism that went deeper than Dorchester’s. And Southie was 100% white. Nobody was getting in.
Dorchester was far more multiethnic. Even in my Irish neighborhood, there were plenty of other races straight along Columbia Road, which was kind of the main drag on the edge of my neighborhood. Any place you get in—which it’s truly just one race—the potential for virulence against another race is just that much higher. Plus, the Irish in general didn’t have a great history when it came to how they’ve dealt with outsiders. In Southie, there were cases where Blacks would be Section Eighted, if you will, into the D Street projects, but they would always be firebombed and sent back out. It was a very vicious world there.
If you look at the picture on the cover of Small Mercies, it was taken by a guy named Eugene Richards, who took all the great photographs of busing at that time. He has a wonderful book called Dorchester Days, and in the center of Dorchester Days is an entire section devoted to Southie in that time period. If you want to know how bad it was, just look at those pictures. They will blow your mind. You’ll be like, “This is America? This is north of the Mason-Dixon line?” It’s quite startling. And talk about the quiet part being said out loud. The quiet part was being spray-painted. The quiet part was signs in people’s windows. There’s an amazing photograph of an African American police officer being shouted at by two white women in a doorway, and in their window is a “no N-words allowed” sign. And the look on the guy’s face is like, “Man, are you kidding me?” That was Southie in ’74.
The first thing I ever read about Southie was in an article published in the New York Times by Father Andrew Greeley in 1971 called “The Last of the American Irish Fade Away,” celebrating the success and assimilation of the Irish in America. Three years before busing in Boston, Greeley called out Southie as an “isolated pocket of failure.”
It was very interesting with this book to come to terms with an anger that had been living in me for a long time that I didn’t understand. I truly had no grasp of it. I wasn’t abused as a kid. I have good relationships with my family. I came from a solid background. And what it finally was, was the choice I had to make as a nine-year-old. There were all these wonderful people in South Boston. There were all these wonderful people in Dorchester. And yet I knew they were card-carrying racists. Not so much that I thought they’d get off the couch and do anything about it, but good Lord, the levels of racism I could trace in all these people I knew and loved was so baffling for me as a nine-year-old. And for me as an adult, it’s the concept of the inner child, if you will. That little kid was trapped inside me for the next 30 years, still pissed off, still really confused about how I could be sitting with somebody I admired who then turned around and said, “Look at that (pick your racial slur). What the fuck is he doing in this neighborhood?” My head can’t get there as a nine-year-old, ten-year-old, 11-year-old, 12-year-old. This book was a real coming to terms with that for me.
Mary Pat has a great character arc in the book. At the beginning, she’s a tough bird, and very much a product of the South Boston projects. When her daughter disappears, she becomes a victim. She’s overwhelmed, almost giving up. But over time, she explodes into righteous anger and action, and soon she’s ready to take on the neighborhood mob. And she’s also seeing things a little bit differently, and becoming a little more enlightened. Were you ever tempted to take her enlightenment too far, too fast?
I wasn’t, but my editor was. My editor wanted her to be a lot more enlightened, and I was like, “Hell no, I will not do this. There’s only so far somebody can go when they’ve had a lifetime of this.” If she had ten more years, she might get there. But it would be constantly fighting against voices inside of her head that are programmed. It’s programming, programming, programming. I’ll give you a perfect example. There’s a group of people all around the city who I knew growing up. If you said the name “Martin Luther King” to them, the first thing they would say—within ten seconds—is, “You know he liked to fuck white women, right? Liked to slap ’em around, too.” It’s the first place they went. And that’s so reflexive. I’ve seen it in varied people across a spectrum. Not people who know each other, not people who are hanging around. It went through the water. And it’s a way to deflect. It’s a way to put up a wall against anything that Martin Luther King could ever say. It’s libel by label, kill the messenger, and they go right to it.
Mary Pat’s ex, Ken Fen, is interesting because he has transcended the neighborhood culture. He’s working at Harvard, he’s living in Cambridge, he’s read different books, he’s married to a Black woman. But he’s also had to cut himself off completely. He’s a stranger to Southie by the time we see him.
He’s done. He can’t even get a drink. He can’t even get condolences at the funeral. He’s out of the tribe. And that is exactly what would happen if you were a white man who left his wife for a Black woman in 1974 South Boston—or in 1974 Dorchester. I’ve got no rose-colored glasses about that either.
Now, I don’t want to presume who South Boston’s mob kingpin in the book, Marty Butler, is supposed to represent—
I don’t think it’s real hard.
In late 1999, I had an advance copy of Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls, about the devastating impact of the Whitey Bulger drug trade in the South Boston projects, and I was reading it when Judge Garrity died. I remember seeing what [former Boston Mayor and Southie native] Ray Flynn said when asked to comment on Garrity’s death—essentially, “He destroyed my community.” And I thought, it’s been 25 years, and you still don’t know who destroyed your community?
I knew Ray Flynn. My father knew him, and he actually appeared at my father’s funeral, which people were very struck by. But I always felt like his vision of what happened in South Boston was really myopic. He couldn’t see the big picture, which is unfortunate for a guy who ended up being mayor of the city.
Here’s the thing I couldn’t address in the book, but I wish I had: Garrity discovered he’d been sandbagged by the [U.S.] Supreme Court just before he had to make the ruling, when all the suburbs got themselves carved out of this. He was never marching down this road thinking it was only going to affect the poor in the city. And then weeks before he had to make the ruling, [in Milliken v. Bradley, the “Detroit busing case” decided July 25, 1974, they] said, “There’ll be no busing in the suburbs.” So Garrity got lumped in with the very people who had screwed him, and with the very people who, to me, represent the destructive side of “Not in my backyard” limousine liberalism that people hate.
In the book, in his friendly argument with Carmen, Bobby—again, as a little bit of a stand-in for me there—says, “Something had to be done.” And it had to be done right then and there. There’s no question. It had languished too long. Schools needed to be desegregated. But you would’ve actually had a potentially peaceful situation if you didn’t just point your fingers at two communities: South Boston and Roxbury. That’s where everybody was like, “Wait a minute. How can you be coming in here and telling us how to live yet again?” In Dorchester, we have a history with the expressway. Dorchester is right on the water, but nobody knows it, because they dropped the 93 expressway straight through it. It carved our neighborhoods away from the ocean. Nobody asked us. That’s the history of poor urban neighborhoods, Black and white. Nobody asks you; they just come in and they do it. Nobody could pull that crap in Brookline. Nobody could pull that crap in Wellesley. That was the legitimate non-racist argument that was happening in Southie. And then unfortunately, it was rolled right into an argument that went, “We don’t want any Black people in this neighborhood, period.” So that was one of the reasons why—and I want to be really clear on this—there were good, non-racist people who said, “What about our rights as a neighborhood to just be involved in this decision? Why doesn’t it affect anybody else?” Those people began to distrust the media, and in particular the Boston Globe, because they were painted with the same brushstroke, because it was easier. And while I think that that position and that problem pale in comparison to the systemic racism that had been going on and on and on and on, and would’ve continued on and on and on, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a legitimate point of conversation. And it got lost.
There are clearly a lot of perspectives that come into play here. For most of Small Mercies, we’re looking at the world from Mary Pat’s perspective, and that’s a fascinating place to be seeing it from. But all along, I’m wondering, “Are we going to see this story through somebody else’s eyes at some point?” And we do end up seeing some of it through Bobby’s eyes, which brings in that narrowly different Dorchester perspective that’s actually a world of difference. But at times, I was thinking, “Are we ever going to see this story through Calliope’s eyes?”
I wrestled with that and struggled with it. I wanted to do it. I kept looking at it and saying, “This book has a really propulsive narrative track. That’s what makes the book work. And if I deviate from that track, can I find a track that’s as interesting?” And I thought, all I’ve got is grief over here [with Calliope and her son’s death]. Where is there a story to tell there, a story that moves forward outside of prepping for a funeral? And I couldn’t find it. And that’s why I made that decision. It was purely about not messing up the structure of the book. I’ve already sold this to AppleTV+, and I’m gonna run it as a show. So I think that’s where I’ll be able to do it. That’s where I’ll have the real estate. That’s where I’ll be able to figure out a trunk storyline that will not affect the delicate balance of a book. This was supposed to be a 200-page book, and it ended up being 300. It was meant to feel like there are no brakes on this and then we’re out. And that’s why Calliope never got in.
Is that something you often wrestle with when you’re writing fiction—whose head are we gonna be in? Whose voice is gonna tell the story? And when do we shift?
When do we shift, and can the boat handle it? I do think of it like you tip that boat and your book’s out. It’s over. And so that was a real issue. Believe me, I grappled with that, quite heavily. At the end of the day, I’ve gotta tell the story.
Small Mercies: A Novel
By Dennis Lehane
Published on April 25, 2023
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and magazine and book editor based in Ithaca, New York. His work has appeared in New York Journal of Books, Paste Magazine, Chicago Review of Books, First of the Month, Virtual Ireland, and First Look Books.