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Cannonball Read #33 [July 5K Entry 1]: Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane

I figured since this 5K is "Locally Grown" and the idea is to read 5 books set in places you lived/live/want to live, I'd choose books about Boston and surrounding areas, since I've been here for nearly 9 years. Then, I'd visit a place relevant to the book. You know, like a field trip. Unfortunately, I found myself cheating almost immediately--Gone Baby Gone is set in Dorchester, and I have no intention of returning to Dorchester.

Let me explain.

Back in 2002, my two friends and I were looking for a place to live for our junior year of college. I had grown up in the sheltered rural "suburbs" of central Pennsylvania. The Prancing Prince spent his formative years in the upper class suburb of Alexandria, VA. The Hindu Goddess grew up in Qatar. None of us had a fucking clue about finding reasonable accommodations in a city. We of course turned to the internet for assistance, and Hindu Goddess and I discovered the ideal place--a 3 bedroom townhouse! 3 stories! 2 bathrooms! Only one street over from the bay! It was perfect! We were delighted, and went to visit at once. The townhouse they showed us was beautiful, and the real estate agent assured us that because of its close proximity to UMass Boston, the neighborhood of townhouses and large apartment buildings was just FULL of students. We loved it! My friend The Beautiful Loser, who accompanied the Hindu Princess and I on our trip, was less than enthusiastic. "I don't like it," he said. We reminded him about the bedrooms! The bathrooms! The bay! "I don't like it," he repeated. "Look around. It's two in the afternoon on a Tuesday, and there are way too many people just...standing around."

We didn't listen, and we should have. He was right.

What we didn't know about our beautiful new neighborhood, Harbor Point, was that ten years ago it was called Colombia Point, and then--as now--it was "the projects." Ten years ago, the crime had been so bad that a full-scale law-enforcement sweep of the neighborhood had gone down. Since that time, a new company had bought the development and sought to make the place look like a place students and young professionals would want to live. They did a decent job, too. The problem was that apparently many of those swept up in the action a decade ago were getting out of jail and coming home. And their children were reaching the mid-teens and beginning to travel in dangerous packs.

In the two years I lived there, we had many thrilling experiences. The neighbors on one side were drug dealers (maybe they weren't. Though having people routinely pulling up outside at 2am to just run in and then out again...not to mention the ones who occasionally turned up screaming in the wee hours about "I WANT MY STUFF! YOU PROMISED ME IT WOULD BE HERE!"--made us quite suspicious, it's not like we were going to pop by and investigate) and the neighbors on the other side liked to get up at 7am on Sundays and blast terrible Spanish gospel music for four hours straight. There was a kid across the street of indefinite gender who wore a helmet and spent the long summer days sitting on its stoop alternately shrieking or breathing pensively through a whistle. One spring evening, I rounded a corner to find an elderly man taking a shit in the bus shelter. Someone was always standing in front of the small convenience store trying to sell you drugs. One New Year's Eve someone shot a police officer. There were car accidents and fires. The only places that would deliver food were a terrible Chinese place and Domino's. Cab drivers never wanted to pick up or drop off there. Bicycles weren't even safe locked to the street-signs--the miscreants would just unscrew the sign and take the whole thing. The final summer I lived there, my boyfriend got mugged at knife point on the way home from the subway, then within a one week span my house was robbed and my roommate was mugged and assaulted (unfortunately, they couldn't catch the mob of teenage assailants because someone had pulled the fire alarms in all the apartment buildings, and when the security officers showed up, someone slashed all the tires on both their SUVs.) That's when I decided I'd had it with Dorchester.

Gone Baby Gone actually reminds me a lot of my days at Harbor Point. A lot of Lehane's characters are exactly the type of people who would be loitering outside a convenience store on a Tuesday afternoon. The main characters of the story are Patrick Kenzie, private investigator and his girlfriend/partner Angie Gennaro. Patrick and Angie grew up in the neighborhood, and are brought in to help on the case of a kidnapped 4-year old girl because they know all the dark corners of Dorchester and who lurks in every one. The story follows them as they try to piece together the actions and motivations of a wide cast of characters--cops, thugs, dealers, working class people, snitches, thieves--in an effort to track down the little girl before she comes to harm. Patrick has the added burden of trying to decide how far he's willing to go to make sure the child is brought home.

The plot is twisty and interesting, but the real winning factor in this book is the characters who populate it. Dennis Lehane has done a great job of fleshing out a world and filling it with the appropriate sort of people. Patrick and Angie have to interact with people on both sides of the law and try to decide how they feel about where that law line is drawn. The characters are so well-described, I felt like I could see each one--meandering down the street, hanging out in front of convenience stores, lingering in parks, gathering on porches. I also really enjoyed Patrick; as a character, I found him to be complex without being forced. He was believable in how he was trying to straddle both worlds--the side of the law and the side of the darkness. In fact, even some of the less likable characters were still complicated...very few were either all good or all bad.

I had seen the film version of Gone Baby Gone before reading the book, and was fairly impressed at how closely the film follows the book. Although there were a few divergences, I felt that none were major losses. Ben Affleck's direction was spot-on, and Casey Affleck was as good as I always expect him to be. Although it's not what I'd call a "feel good" movie, it--along with the original book--is definitely worth checking out. Although it's obviously not a totally realistic view of what life is like in Dorchester, it's fairly close to what my observations were like when I lived there.


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