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Mystic River: Masterful Writing By Dennis Lehane

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When I first saw the movie Mystic River I was hit by a thunderbolt; Clint Eastwood is so precise in what he wants as a director and two of his actors pulled out performances of their lifetime—Sean Penn as Jimmy Marcus and Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle are electrifying in this superbly-crafted screenplay of a masterful novel by Dennis Lehane.

Sample this opening paragraph of the book: “When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.”

A blogger I read defined it perfectly by calling it a deceptively-simple start. The whole book is written in this deceptively-simple manner. The fathers of Sean and Jimmy were friends and on Saturdays they would get together at Sean’s place for a beer; and as one beer turned into six, Jimmy and Sean would play in the backyard, sometimes with Dave Boyle, a kid with girl’s wrists and weak eyes.

“Dave Boyle didn’t have a father, just a lot of uncles, and the only reason he was usually there on those Saturdays was because he had this gift for attaching himself to Jimmy like lint; he’d see him leaving his house with his father, show up beside their car, half out of breath, going ‘What’s up, Jimmy?’ with a sad hopefulness.”

Then one day when they were on the kerb of a street and having a friendly fight a strange car pulled up near the sidewalk. One boy got in the car, two did not, and something terrible happened—something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever.

Twenty-five years later, Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective. Jimmy Marcus is an ex-con who owns a corner store. And Dave Boyle is trying to save his marriage and keep his demons at bay.

Dennis Lehane has this almost perfect way of fleshing out his characters just as he keeps the plot moving forward. Jimmy has three daughters and Katie is the eldest one. Katie and a guy called Brendan Harris are in love and have planned to elope the next day. While packing Brendan is thinking about when he met her first just a year ago when he was doing a roofing job for a guy called Bobby.

‘He’d known of her, of course; everyone in the neighbourhood knew of Katie. She was that beautiful. Few people really knew her. Beauty could do that; it scared you off, made you keep your distance. It wasn’t like in the movies where the camera made beauty seem like something that invited you in. In the real world, beauty was like a fence to keep you out, back you off.”

But Katie, man, from the first day she’d come by with Bobby O’Donnell, and then he’d left her at the site while he and his boys tore off across town to conduct some pressing business, left Katie behind like they’d forgot they ever had her—from that very first day, she was so basic and normal; she hung with Brendan as he applied flashing to the roof as if she was just another dude.”

Lehane describes the pace of the day and the mood of the principal characters before the two love birds have decided to fly and get married; leaving behind Buckingham where they grew up and where everyone knows everyone.

“At thirty-six, Jimmy Marcus had come to love the quiet of his Saturday nights. He had no use for loud, packed bars and drunken confessions. Thirteen years since he’d walked out of prison, and he owned a corner store, had a wife and three daughters at home, and believed he’d traded the wired-up boy he’d been for a man who appreciated an even pace to his life—a slowly sipped beer, a morning stroll, the sound of a baseball game on the radio.

When Jimmy was a kid—hell, until he was almost twenty-three—that energy had dictated his every action. And then … then you just learned how to stow it some-place, he guessed. You tucked it away.”

“His eldest daughter, Katie, was in the midst of that process now. Nineteen years old and so, so beautiful, all her hormones on red alert, surging. But lately he’d noticed an air of grace settling in his daughter. He wasn’t sure where it had come from—some girls grew into womanhood gracefully, others remained girls their whole lives—but it was there in Katie all of a sudden, a peacefulness, a serenity even.

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