“Driving down 93, I realized once and for all, that I love the things that chafe. The things that fill me with stress so total I can’t remember when a block of it didn’t rest on top of my heart. I love what, if broken, can’t be repaired. What, if lost can’t be replaced.
I love my burdens.”
– Patrick Kenzie (Moonlight Mile)
One of the best things about the Reading Challenge I took on this year is the ways in which it is helping me to rediscover some books and series that I had long forgotten. This part of the challenge had me choosing 5 of the first 10 books I added to Goodreads when I signed up many years ago. When I logged on and came across Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane I got really excited. I can remember adding it to my list, and even heading out to the bookstore to buy it. But then it sat on my shelf for all these years. I had forgotten why I added it, and being able to finally dig into this one also led me back to other loves of my reading past, including Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone, and even the film (and novel) Mystic River.
Mystic River and the Uncovering the Question of Motivation
It was the adaption of Mystic River for the big screen that happened to be my introduction to author Dennis Lehane’s vast body of work. As one of my favourite films of all time, director Clint Eastwood made some curious choices that left me eager to read the novel. He lets us wrestle with the films central themes of sin, guilt, and friendship through the ambiguity of the central character’s motivations. And given this is a film about the ways in which the choices of our past tend to catch up with our present, a notion that we see in the stories memorable catch phrase “We bury our sins, we wash them clean”, the lack of backstory leaves plenty of room for us as viewers to fill in the gaps ourselves.
This is a wonderful cinematic device that allowed me to really walk in these characters shoes, but it is one that also left me eager to dig into the literary source. And what I discovered in reading the book was an author who was equally adept at handling the question of motivation, only Lehane chooses to fill in the gaps using words and description. This is a literary device that also allowed me to walk in these characters shoes, just in a slightly different way. I found myself needing to interpret Eastwood’s use of space, whereas I found myself needing to imagine Lehane’s use of dialogue and descriptive.
Motivation can be a difficult thing to flesh out not matter the narrative form, and I understand what drew Eastwood to want to adapt Lehane’s novel for the big screen. It takes a special voice to be able to do this without falling into caricatures of either good or evil. And what impressed me about Lehane after having the privilege of reading some of his other works (another favourite of mine was Shutter Island) was the way he is consistently able to use the question of motivation to hold his characters, usually complicated characters who are being haunted by a particular choice or tension, in balance.
Kenzie-Gennaro and The Difficult Choice
Moonlight Mile finds Lehane returning to world of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, whom many might also remember from the popular film Gone Baby Gone. Midnight is actually the sixth novel in the Kenzie-Gennaro series, but it also happens to be a sequel to Gone Baby Gone, one that picks up a number of years down the road.
What is immediately impressed on us as viewers in the opening pages is the recollection that Patrick was left to make a difficult choice in Gone Baby Gone, one that left him, and us as viewers/readers wrestling with how to interpret the decision along the line of right and wrong. Moonlight Mile falls in line with Mystic River in the sense that it leaves plenty of room for Patrick’s choice to haunt him, especially given that this story takes place 12 years later. Lehane uses the opening pages to give us the feeling of a life and a world that has both managed to put itself back together in some sense, but in which many of the pieces still lay scattered. Lehane leaves us with this lingering sense that however the story moves forward, Patrick is going to need to deal with his past in order to move forward, especially as it relates to his relationship with Angela. And what becomes clear the further we get into this story, is that the question of motivation remains incredibly important when it comes to really understanding who these characters are.
Maturing as an Author, Diving Deeper as a Writer
Lehane has also matured as an author, and I believe this is his best book in the series. He allows this story to dive a bit deeper and really seems to understand what it might mean to walk in Patrick’s shoes after some of this stuff has been left lingering for so many years, someone who must learn to wrestle with his demons and engage a difficult past even while he struggles to hold things together in the present. And one of the things Lehane elevates here is his ability to flesh this out within the context of relationship.
It is Patrick’s relationship with Angela, something we see challenged in the end of Gone Baby Gone, that becomes the foundation through which both Patrick and Angela, who also gets some wonderful characterization here, are able to understand and accept what it means to live as broken people. The power of this relationship was the consideration they gave to the same moral question coming from different perspectives. And what Moonlight Mile reminds us of is that, when it comes to wanting to better ourselves, often times this growth happens in the midst of the grey, not the black and white. And it in this place where the question of motivation, why we make certain choices and what these choices say about us, becomes to important. And the fact that Lehane is able to bring this out with such attentiveness, and in the guise of a crime novel is a testament to his talent as a writer. He understands that when it comes to characterization, leaving room for us as readers to really wrestle with the characters choices is the process by which we become endeared to the characters he is developing, and also the means by which we find compassion for their position. And where Eastwood did this using space and ambiguity, Lehane does this using the power of words.