Dive in to ‘Mystic River’

It’s funny. I thought I had read this book already, but now I realize that what I mistook for a previous, hazily remembered reading was in fact a pickup of the general plot line from watching bits and pieces of the movie starring Sean Penn, which was based on this book. I’m glad I’ve actually read it now, as it was an engrossing and heartbreaking tale of three boys, friends as children until something happens to them as 11-year-olds whose reverberations don’t finish playing out until long after they are grownups.

Of the three boys we are introduced to at the beginning, Sean Devine seems the most likely to succeed. None of the boys come from money, but Sean’s family lives in The Point, a slightly more affluent working-class neighborhood of Boston, and his parents place a premium on education and making sure that Sean has choices that they didn’t have. Jimmy Marcus and Dave Boyle are from the other side of the tracks, a lower-rent district called The Flats. Jimmy is a reckless, fearless kid who thrives on breaking the rules. Dave is that kid who is nobody’s friend and nobody’s enemy. He tags along after Jimmy wherever he goes, and Jimmy tolerates him without actually seeking out his company. Then Dave is abducted, and when he returns four days later nothing is the same.

When we meet the boys again as grownups, their lives have not gone as we might have predicted. Sean has become a cop, and a good one, but his marriage is a shambles and he’s just coming off a suspension. Jimmy has moved past an earlier life of crime and now is a law-abiding owner of a small convenience store with three daughters. Dave continues to drift through life, where even a wife and a son can’t anchor him to reality and his childhood horror keeps bubbling to the surface in ways he can’t predict or control. It all comes to a head when Jimmy’s teenage daughter is murdered, Sean is assigned to investigate, and Dave quickly becomes a suspect. Lehane layers revelation upon revelation, slowly building the story to a climax that dispenses a rough sort of justice that ultimately nobody can take satisfaction in.

I knew Lehane was a fine writer well-versed in dark and twisty subjects. His Kenzie-Gennaro series is a masterful display of dark humor and gruesome tragedy. With Mystic River, he’s created another pitch-perfect examination of the ways in which past and future combine to create an uncomfortable present. This book could be the textbook for a master class in how to convey a sense of place and character strictly through dialogue, which carries all the flavor of working-class Boston in every line. Even if you’ve seen the movie and you think you already know how it ends, you’ll enjoy the scenery along the way.