Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bag O' Books: 'Moonlight Mile' by Dennis Lehane

Three thoughts about the novel 'Moonlight Mile' by Dennis Lehane:

• This is Lehane's most recent novel, but the first I've ever read. I'm not so ignorant of culture, though, that I don't know that his books have been adapted into acclaimed movies like "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone," or that Lehane himself was a writer on "The Wire." Since I haven't read those earlier works, all I can say is that I can see how Lehane ended up so loved by Hollywood. His writing is cinematic—lean, funnier than I expected, full of violence. Plenty of internal monologues by the narrator—longtime Lehane hero Patrick Kinzie—that, in your head, you can easily hear as voiceover narration by Robert Downey Jr. It's easy, breezy fun.

• That said, this novel got me thinking about the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. "Moonlight Mile" seems a fairly straightforward pulp noir novel to me, yet Lehane seems to have crossed into the seemingly higher-brow literary fiction arena. (The distinction is artificial, but I wonder the same thing about music sometimes. Why is some music considered "pop" and ready for the Top 40 audience and other music, of great listenability, directed more to indie audiences? Sometimes it's quantifiable and sometimes it's not.) As best I can tell, Lehane gets the the more-coveted "literary fiction" label, at least to some extent, because lots of smart people like reading his stuff. Maybe genre distinctions are more about the audience and reader self-identification than about what a writer actually produces.

• Final thought: Lehane lards this novel with so many contemporary references— the band Pela, the TV show "Arrested Development," jokes about P. Diddy—that it's impossible to place this novel in any year besides, roughly, 2010. On one hand, Kinzie's constant name-checking helps us figure out who he is: He's not just a Chandleresque tough guy—he's an aging Gen X hipster with great taste in popular culture. But at times it almost seems to overwhelm the crime story (which has ... plausibility problems) and turn it into an episode of "Community." "Moonlight Mile" is a fun read, but it's also—despite the violence—light as a feather.

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