Only a confident writer would take on some of the heavily traveled routes of American culture — the criminal world that thrived during Prohibition and encompassed gambling and public corruption — and make them his own.
Dennis Lehane reshapes those well known tropes in lesser known locales, Boston and Ybor City, in his latest novel. He masters the noirish tone of his story without veering into cliché or camp territory, and he establishes his authority right off the bat when the protagonist falls in love in the middle of holding up a poker game.
“Problem was, he wasn’t interested in guardian angels today,” Lehane writes. “He was interested in her.”
Live by Night is a follow-up to The Given Day, Lehane’s novel set in Boston in 1919, but you wouldn’t exactly call it a sequel. We learn what happens to Danny Coughlin, the hero of the earlier novel, and he has a brief cameo. But this story belongs entirely to Danny’s little brother, Joe, who is a small-time outlaw on the rise when the novel begins in 1926.
He’s a smart young man and good at what he does, but he has vulnerabilities, mostly his love for the woman he meets during the poker robbery. She also happens to be a gangster’s moll. And he’s got a problematic relationship with his father, a deputy superintendent with the Boston Police Department.
Joe — whom his father insists on calling Joseph — looks just like his father.
“Joe’s father looked at him and saw his own youth mocking him. Joe looked at his father and saw liver spots and loose flesh, Death standing at the end of his bed at 3 A.M., tapping an impatient foot.” They love each other, but neither can understand the other’s choices.
Thomas Coughlin won power, respectability and the chance for his sons to go even higher and more legit. Joe prefers “to live moments the insurance salesmen of the world, the truck drivers and lawyers and bank tellers and carpenters and Realtors would never know. Moments in worlds without nets — none to catch you and none to envelope you.”
Like its predecessor, Live By Night is epic in its ambitions. It doesn’t span decades or generations; all the action takes place between 1926 and 1935. But it covers the crucial decade in one American’s life and in doing so provides a vivid portrait of American life in that time. Other writers with epic ambition should take note of Lehane’s restraint — this novel is just right at 400 pages, enough to absorb a reader without requiring a commitment of weeks.
Joe Coughlin’s path is not easy. Early in the novel, he winds up in prison, and from the first line of the book we know he’s destined for a boat trip with his feet placed in a tub of cement. He works for criminals, and his biggest dream is to create a casino on Florida’s Gulf Coast, in order to liberate fools from their money. He’s cynical compared to Graciela, a Cuban cigar-roller in Ybor City who works for the overthrow of the government on her home island.
“Graciela dreamed of land reform and farmers’ rights and a fair distribution of wealth. She believed in fairness, essentially a concept Joe was certain had left the earth about the time the earth left diapers.” But Joe is not so cynical that he won’t support Graciela in her dreams or allow for the possibility of love in a world he knows to be cruel and capricious.
An Irish boy from Boston becomes a man dealing with Italian gangsters, Southern Klansmen and Cuban freedom fighters. It’s an original story, and it’s truly American.
Nancy Klingener is a writer in Key West.