Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

This 2012 work is a gangster novel to end all gangster novels. It is Lehane being a serious writer again, producing a work far superior to Moonlight Mile, even if this is not quite a literary work. Why? Because it stresses action, which I like, but at the expense of character, depth, and human values.

It is the story of Joe Coughlin, a minor character in The Given Day—a story of the Coughlin family, and a novel that is literature.

Joe is the black sheep in the family, the son who is impatient, who is greedy, and who does not respect the moral standards his family claims it stands for. He does not, in part, because his father Thomas Coughlin, a severe Boston police captain, is not the upstanding man he appears to be.

The novel begins with a spectacular first paragraph. Joe’s legs have been put in cement by Tampa gangsters who are preparing to dump him overboard, and he recalls how everything began with his meeting a cool beauty, Emma Gold, as he robbed a Boston speakeasy of mobster Albert White. This sets up both the Boston and Florida settings, even as the reader wonders if this first paragraph, besides being a teaser, is actually telling us about Joe’s final fate.

This novel is thus in two parts. It begins in Boston, where Joe calls himself an outlaw rather than a gangster, as he rationalizes his rebellion from his father’s strict moral code. Nevertheless, he works for one Irish boss, Tim Hickey, who is in conflict with another, Albert White. And Joe’s initial fate is sealed when he falls for a woman, Emma Gould, who is the mistress of Albert White.

Joe’s partner in the Hickey gang is a boyhood chum, Dion Bartolo. Joe’s Boston fate is determined when he robs a bank with Joe and his brother, and they are betrayed. As a result, Joe ends up in jail in Charlestown, the most powerful section of the novel, where Joe’s fearlessness impresses Maso Pescatore, the incarcerated but powerful leader of a Mafia gang. Fearful of Maso’s threat on his own and his father’s life, Joe becomes subservient to Maso. And Maso, after Joe’s effective scheming in the jail, even against Maso, is impressed, and sends Joe off to Tampa, Florida, to run Maso’s operations there.

The Tampa section is more interesting than Boston’s, because in Boston Joe was following the orders of his boss, whereas in Tampa he is the boss, even as part of Maso’s empire. Thus, he is making the decisions rather than reacting to orders; and he is joined there by a loyal Dion.

While the dramatic highlight of the book is the Charlestown jail sequence, the Tampa section has a carefully planned robbery of guns from an American supply ship. The weapons are intended for the Cuban underground trying to topple Machado, the island’s dictator. Joe commits himself to this plot—it is here he meets Graciela—because he needs the local Cuban contacts for his gangster empire.

Many Cubans are at risk in this plot, of course, and, as elsewhere in this novel, when someone dies there is no sentiment involved—either from Joe or the novelist. Perhaps because this is a gangster world. Everyone, including Joe, lives with the expectation of death. And, note, it is without an expectation of reward or punishment in an afterlife.

As I said, Joe now meets Graciela, a Cuban beauty who wishes to accomplish good in the world, but is conflicted because she doesn’t believe good deeds can follow (Joe’s) bad money. She and Joe make an emotional connection, however, and he discovers he is over his love for Emma, whom he believes is dead. So Joe and Graciela begin living together, even as they work separately.

It is in Tampa that Joe’s character is hardened, for he reasons with some but is forced to kill others who threaten him or his friends. Not to be ignored is how Lehane has made us identify with and sympathize with this gangster killer. This is probably the book’s major achievement—getting the reader committed to a complex man who breaks all the rules of society even as he remains loyal to Dion, his closest friend, and to Graciela, his lover. This, in its own way, mirrors good coming out of bad.

I have two major issues with this novel. The first centers on police chief Irving Figgis and his beautiful daughter, Loretta. Figgis is introduced as an accommodating but no nonsense chief, and his daughter as an innocent. But she soon suffers an unexpected fate worse than death, and then responds unbelievably, while her father rescues her, then changes, also unbelievably.

My second reservation is the ending. After the Tampa power struggle has ended, Lehane moves his characters to Cuba for a quiet ending. Why, one asks? Nothing is happening. We witness the creation of a tobacco farm, and Joe resolves his love life. Then, on a return to Florida, a final violence seems tacked on, as if Lehane felt that some kind of justice needed to be meted out. I am not convinced, however. There is too much coincidence involved, plus an unconvincing perpetrator.

To sum up, this is an admirable gangster novel. It blends the evil of man and some of the humanity of man, with the former triumphant because this is a gangster novel. While it has a few interesting foregound characters, it kills off a lot of faceless people, producing a heartless novel, a novel of characters who live by a criminal code and accept their fate.

I will follow more Lehane, but I have had enough of the gangster milieu here. I think families offer a much richer environment for exploring the nuances of humanity. The gangster world is too black and white, even if Lehane attempts to mix that black and white. The family setting of The Given Day, on the other hand, offers built-in shades of grey, of good and evil, that provide for far greater character nuances. (December, 2013)

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