Live by Night
- Dennis Lehane
- William Morrow
- 416 pp.
- October 18, 2012
The saga of a mobster’s education is told amid the backdrop of Prohibition-era Boston and Tampa.
Reviewed by Jud Ashman
Like some of the memorable bad-guy characters in his novels, Dennis Lehane has the ability to snatch his readers out of their daily lives and whisk them away to the underworld; to blighted, seedy neighborhoods where colorful, lusty, dangerous characters are engaged in their own dark passion plays. And his readers are willing captives, craving their tours of Lehane’s imagination.
As Lehane’s latest novel, Live by Night, opens, his protagonist Joe Coughlin is faced with a different sort of immersion. Heavily armed mobsters on the deck of a tugboat heading out into the Gulf of Mexico have just placed his feet in a tub of wet cement. Bound and gagged, Joe thinks back to where it all started: a robbery in a backroom of a Boston speakeasy in 1926, where he first encountered Emma Gould.
We flash back. Joe is a teenager making a living doing jobs for a mob boss who is preparing to go to war with another mob boss named Albert White. Mr. White owns the aforementioned speakeasy Joe has come to rob, and it is full of White’s associates. While holding up the gangsters, Joe is smitten by the unflappable Emma, a sassy cocktail waitress. Faced with a loaded gun, she has the moxie to ask, “And what will the gentleman be having with his robbery this morning?” Joe learns, shortly thereafter, that she is Mr. White’s mistress.
Deterred by neither the formidable competition, nor by the pointed warnings of his father, who happens to be Deputy Superintendent of the BPD, Joe pursues Emma and they make plans to take the proceeds from Joe’s next score and run away forever. However, the next score goes horribly awry, Emma disappears, and Joe ends up heartbroken and in prison.
Charlestown Penitentiary is a dangerous place, especially for the son of a high-ranking police official. With a combination of wit and affability, however, Joe is able to hold his own. An alliance evolves between Joe and fellow inmate, Maso Pescatore, also a well-established mob boss (and rival to Albert White) who is nearing the end of his own prison sentence. When Pescatore is released, he sees to it that Joe’s parole hearing goes favorably and, upon release, gives Joe a job.
Maso sends Joe to Florida to run the operation in Tampa, where much of the Prohibition-era rum-running is sourced, and where rival Albert White’s gang has been trying to insinuate itself. He sets up shop in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, known for its cigar-rolling sweatshops, cheap immigrant labor and intense night life. Joe strikes up a partnership with some Cuban expatriates, including a passionate and beautiful revolutionary. And there, the stage is set for Joe to play out the most dangerous, triumphant, tragic and redemptive acts of his life.
While Live by Night works well as a standalone story, it does take up with the same family Lehane featured in his 2008 novel, The Given Day, in which Joe’s brother Danny was the main character. (Danny makes a cameo here, adding a postscript to the earlier book.) In following the Coughlin family, Lehane’s overarching theme may be exploring an idea he mentions in the book, the “travails of trying to raise virtuous children in such a Gomorrahan age.”
And that age was a period of great transition: the waning years of Prohibition and the early years of the Great Depression, for example, loom in the near background, wreaking havoc on business models, cultural traditions and personal alliances. Lehane populates his canvas with characters desperately seeking solid ground. They cling, both literally and symbolically, to their sense of themselves and the world. One carries around his late father’s wristwatch, another holds dear her time-embellished notions of her homeland. For others, it’s freedom, or religion, or violence, or family legacy.
That desire for stability in tumultuous times is symbolized by a brief but memorable scene in the Florida backwoods. Joe, at this point a well-armed, well-connected mob functionary, is ordered to collect tribute from a small-time bootlegger named Turner John. When Joe finds Turner, he asks, “Why you doing it? Why not just pay a bit of tribute?” Turner has no time for newfangled business arrangements.
“I had me a fine daddy. Only beat me hard when I had it coming and never when he’d taken to drink … he was the finest of men. And a son wants his father to be able to look down and see his teachings took root. Right about now, Daddy’s watching me and saying, ‘Turner John, I ain’t raised you to pay tribute to another man didn’t get down in the muck with you to earn his keep.’ … You want my money, Mr. Coughlin? Well then you best set to working with me and my boys … you follow?”
And Joe Coughlin does follow.
As a character, Joe is engrossing, but flawed. We like him, but we don’t fully understand him. In fact, it’s not clear why he chose a life of crime in the first place. “Violence breeds violence. It’s an absolute,” his father told him, prophetically, when he was younger. “What you put out into the world will always come back for you.”
As a novelist, Dennis Lehane remains among the best in the business. His dialogue is as poignant as ever; his prose crisp, measured and literary; his plot lines both clever and ambitious. Live by Night isn’t his best work, but it is definitely worth the read.
Jud Ashman is the Founder and Chair of the Gaithersburg Book Festival, one of the DC area’s premier literary events, and an occasional reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Follow Jud on Twitter at @judashman.