Gone, Baby, Gone
But he can’t stay away. Dennis Lehane left Boston for Hollywood, but you can’t take the city out of the writer.
How did your mother respond to your books?
She didn’t understand where I learned all the bad language. She apologized for it all the time. “He went to Jesuit school! I don’t know how he learned those words!”
Well, in your defense, I went to BC High like you did, and I found the Jesuits to be pretty foul-mouthed. But your stuff is really dark. Did your parents wonder where all the darkness came from?
Yeah, they spent a lot of time saying, “Well, he had a happy childhood—he was a happy child, always telling jokes.”
I always wonder if parents would see that as an indictment of their child-rearing.
A little bit. I remember being at a bookstore signing, my old man’s in the back. He’s got his scally cap on and his plaid shirt and he’s just standing in the back, totally zoning out. And somebody says, “Well, you were clearly abused by your father.” And I see my old man’s head go, whoa! [Laughs.] I’m like, “No, I wasn’t! Patrick Kenzie was abused by his father.” They’re like, “Oh, come on.” My father said afterward, “I have no idea what the hell was going on there.” I said, “Brookline, Dad.”
In Live by Night, Graciela tells Joe that he sees the best in the worst of people, and the worst in the best of people. Is that you?
That’s me. That’s 100 percent me. If you say to me: “That is one of the finest members of our community,” I’d be like, “Fuck that, he’s got skeletons in his closet somewhere, and they’re probably worst than most.” And then if you say to me, “Don’t talk to that guy, he’s a scumbag drug dealer,” I’m like, “Hey, what’s up? I want to know what your humanity is.”
It’s funny, I was at a party once in Florida, I’ll never forget it. I was with this guy and he was the most pleasant guy in the world. He was a neighbor, and everyone was talking to him, and finally someone said, “What do you do?” And he said, “I help people reinvent the narrative surrounding toxic mixed-used land.” So basically what this guy does is he helps the people who bought all these terrible places that were giving people cancer redesign the narrative around the land so people would actually buy the property. And everybody kept drinking. And I thought if this fucking guy answered that question saying, “I deal blow,” we’d all turn away from him. But he does far worse than any coke dealer I’ve ever known.
Look, we grew up in the shadow of Bernie Law. If there’s anybody who should be in fucking jail right now, it’s Bernie Law. And we were always told, “Look at that great man in his great robes.” And I remember all the time being a kid going, “I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.” Because I used to serve Mass at the cardinal’s residence, see the 132 rooms, and all this shit. And I’m sitting back there, I’m like a little Martin Luther, going, “I don’t think that’s the point.” I think that was ingrained pretty early.
Are you still a practicing Catholic?
No. My wife is.
There’s a lot of Catholicism in your books.
Oh, God, yes. World Gone By is about as Catholic as it gets. But I’m a literary Catholic. Whether I believe ultimately, I think I have some problem as a rationalist believing that God left a how-to guide behind; that’s hard for me to totally grasp. Sometimes I’m there and other times I’m not. I grapple with that a lot. My wife’s very much Catholic, and I’ve agreed to raise our children that way. I believe kids should have moral instruction; I believe kids should have faith; I believe kids should have a sense of something greater than themselves.
Something greater meaning an actual being or just a purpose?
A being. Who knows. I’ve grappled with it as I’ve gotten older and older and older. But do I believe there’s something else out there? Yeah, very much.
Speaking of getting older. In World Gone By, the black gangster Montooth Dix—which I think is one of the greatest character names, ever—thinks to himself, “Growing older seemed only to teach you that new crops of people kept coming up behind you doing the same stupid shit the previous crop had done. No one learned anything. No one evolved.” Is there any of you in there?
Oh, yeah. I was at the Huntington museum yesterday, looking at all these paintings that people had commissioned, them standing by horses with swords and everything, and I’m like, “You don’t know anything. You didn’t know shit and you’re all dead.” We’re all just continually bullshitting. Every single thing we do is to convince everybody else that we’re a little smarter than we actually are, or a little bit more put-together. We’re just hoping you buy it. But I’m also fascinated by the idea that if you quit on human existence, then no good things would happen. You have to believe, at some level, that we’re greater than we actually are: Otherwise you wouldn’t cure polio.
But there is progress.
Amazing progress. I can hold two diametrically opposed ideas inside my head at the same time.
You say we’re all bullshitting. In World Gone By, you use a Springsteen quote as an epigraph: “I’m driving a stolen car / On a pitch black night / And I’m telling myself I’m gonna be alright.” You a big Springsteen guy?
I love Springsteen. I love that quote, that sense that the stolen car can be any metaphor you want it to be.
I saw him at Giants Stadium two years ago for the Wrecking Ball tour. It was like a big-top revival. He just lifted the crowd off the ground. Near the end there was a girl in front of me in a Muslim headscarf singing along to “Born to Run.” It was the most moving musical experience I’ve ever had. It was fucking amazing.
I met him on that tour, and I’ll never forget, he was talking to me, and he had a leather vest on, and sweat was just pouring off the points of this vest; it was coming through the leather. That’s how hard he had worked. And I just remember thinking, That’s what we have to do. Everybody has to work as hard as Bruce Springsteen.