World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane

As I’m reading this 2015 novel, I’m thinking: this is the gangster novel to end all ganster novels. And then I remember: that is how I began my review of his last novel, Live by Night. So which is better? This novel. Because Joe Coughlin has more depth. He is tring to leave the world of violence behind, (Shades of Godfather!), and a ghost of the past haunts him. Moreover, as my interest grows, I realize that Dennis Lehane also loves his hero, and whether or not Joe survives at the end of this work might well depend on whether Lehane wants to write another novel about him. Which he could. But will he?

Joe Coughlin is still a gangster in Florida as the book opens, but he no longer sees himself as such, because he has retired from directing underworld affairs. He is now on the crime family’s, so to speak, board of directors. He has made a lot of money for his criminal friends, and they continue to benefit from his past actions. And so he tries for a life of comfort with his young son Tomas, from whom he tries to coneal his past, even as he persists in an affair and continues advising his underworld friends.

But as the novel opens, he is surprised to hear of a threat to his life. It appears to make no sense, because he has helped so many friends become wealthy. And then comes a very provocative and innovative scene, when Joe sees off in the distance the vague figure of a young boy. Is he real or imaginary? Who is he supposed to be? Himself? And if he is a ghost, does that means there is life after death, and thus exists the God that Joe says he doesn’t believe in? And if God does exist, is he sending a message to Joe?

As these mirages continue to pop into Joe’s vision, one senses that at a minimum they express a guilty conscience. And even Joe wonders, at times, if he will be damned. For peace of mind, however, he has compartmentalized his life, justifying to himself each person he has killed. It was out of loyalty, or self-defense, or simply to benefit the organization that relied on him.

The details of this book, of his search for the person who will kill him, do not really matter. What matters is that they kept me reading this novel in large gaps. In fact, I read it in three takes. Because each step Joe makes to discover his potential murderer leads to a new threat, a new risk, a new confrontation with friends who may not be the friends they seem to be. Or with enemies Joe respects and who respect him.

This historic context adds further interest and a deeper reality to this work. For the events take place during World War II, when the underworld controls many of the docks and the war effort depends on the shipping of men and material abroad. Moreover, Joe is dealing here with real gangsters, with Meyer Lansky. Lucky Luciano, and others. He even suggests an idea for getting Luciano out of jail after the war, and history reveals he actually was released. To which might be added a touch of Batista’s Cuba, and the inroads that Joe has helped to make there for Lansky.

There is also, as I said, a love affair, a surprising one for the reader; and it is milked until the very end. Will they or won’t they, go off together into the sunset? His lover is not sure, because he is a gangster, and she is a respectable woman, even if in thrall to him. But through her we see the sensitivity and the yearning for good that is inside Joe, and which he cannot express in his relationships with gangster friends.

He does express it regarding his son Tomas, protecting him at all cost. He even tries to protect him from the truth about himself, but fails. He worries, however, about his son’s future as well as his own. Will he be around tomorrow to protect him?

The internal morality of the gangsters also raises this work to a serious level, a literary level. The rationale is that an attack on a fellow crime family member is an attack on me. It is an eye-for-an eye philosophy that enables Joe and others to stand against the world. Thus, the violent death of any crime family member calls for an equal payback. This is true whether the killer is a member of an enemy gang or the same crime family. It is also true whether or not the killer was justified in killing the crime family member, such as when an enemy kills in self-defense.

The reason for the title is elusive. Does it mean that in his semi-retirement Joe has tried to leave his old world behind, or that that world has now left him behind? Does it refer to the ghost of the boy and his world? Does it suggest that Joe will leave this world for another world? It is provocative, like the rest of the book.

Which brings us to the ending. Three shocking events take place over the last eight pages, as if Lehane wants to top himself, and sock the reader—pow, pow. But are these events real? The first event is unpleasant but inevitable in the book’s terms, whereas the next is hopelessly romantic and contrary to the book’s terms, and the last is more an intrusion by the author, and might have worked only if it had been set up more carefully.

As a result, the author himself guides the action, and produces little satisfaction. Beause his ending is too arbitrary, and not a little puzzling. This is how it ends, the author says. That, in his mysterious world human actions have many repercussions, and worldly endings do not always make true endings. He ends with Joe hoping “there was more to this than a dark night, an empty beach, and waves that never quite reached the shore.”

I look forward to reading more Lehane. With that name, and a presumably Catholic background, he regards life much as I do, that humans are complex beings, that evil exists in this world, that another world may await beyond this one, and that earthly justice does not always prevail.

I have no idea, however, what his next novel will be about. Just as he plucked an inconsequential Joe out of The Given Day, will he pluck Tomas out of this novel and move a decade or so ahead? And whomever he focuses on, will he go back to Boston? Which I would like but do not really expect. Or might his hero move to Lehane’s new home in California, home of Latino gangs, racial violence, politics, water rights, and the entertainment industry?

It makes no difference. I am committed. (July, 2015)

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)