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)

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have put off reading Morrison for many years, simply not drawn to her portrait of black society. But this is supposed to be one of her best, I thought, so let’s give it a try.

Once I started this 1987 book, however, I was immediately lost. Who is Baby Suggs? What is the relationship among these people? What is going on? Fortunately, there is a Foreword, and in it Morrison explains that she has deliberately dumped the reader into the middle of a complex situation. Because this is what life is, especially for black people, who must react to the world around them, often without help.

However, the relationships among these people remain unclear for some time. Especially when Beloved arrives on their doorstep, a young woman whom Denver, daughter of Sethe, relates to. Who is she? Is she a ghost? Because another baby has died earlier. And this new arrival not only has the same name but is the title character. So we know she is important.

There is also a white woman named Amy, who helps Sethe on the day she bears a child. Sethe is grateful, and learns her last name is Denver, which she likes. That baby appears to be Denver, now a teenager. What is clear is that this episode takes us back in time, that we are dealing here with events on different time levels. Which adds complexity to the relationships.

For a long while we have no reference point for the memories and interaction among Sethe, Beloved, Paul D, a former slave, and others. But with more detail, the relationships begin to come together. This is Faulkner territory to a degree, as we bounce around in time. Thus, Paul D escapes from a Georgia chain gang, moves in with Sethe, boots out a baby ghost, and then runs into the opposition of the newly-arrived Beloved, who suggests both that banished baby and a past returned to haunt the present.

Confusion is amplified as the story continues to move about in time, even introducing a new character, Stamp Paid, a ferryman who brought Sethe to freedom. He tries to persuade Paul D to make a realistic appraisal of Sethe, whom Stamp once found with two children, one covered with blood. Nothing is clearly stated, but the implication is that she has killed one child in order to preserve it from the life she has known. But, unlike in Faulkner, where confusion reigns but is eventually clarified, my frustration continues.

Until we remain in the present, where new details finally begin to make sense. That Stamp Paid stopped Sethe from killing Denver, after she had killed her other child, presumably Beloved, and tells this to a distraught Paul D. That Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and she is triumphant when he leaves after learning this. That Sethe still loves Beloved, and now tries to justify what she did by emphasizing the plight of fellow coloreds. But Beloved refuses to listen; and, as they argue, Beloved gains control over her mother, for Sethe is fearful Beloved will leave.

The climax occurs when Denver seeks a job with Quaker abolitionist Bodwin in order to support Sethe and Beloved, but to get that job she has to reveal the situation at home. Which riles up the local woman, who gather at the house to pray just as Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver. At the height of the action, Sethe rushes from Beloved’s side to attack Bodwin, thinking he is a slave catcher. This act also frees her from Beloved. And from her past?

A chapter later, we learn what happened and that Beloved is gone. The house also appears empty, except the faithful Paul D finds Sethe lying in bed, as grandmother Suggs did before she died. Who was Beloved, the town asks. Did she really exist? A final chapter recalls how she has been forgotten.

To sum up, this novel’s mysteriousness and misdirection certainly hearkens back to Faulkner. Why did Morrison take this approach? Partly, I think, because so much of the action is internal, and that while the life of the colored people is vividly captured, not much happens dramatically in the novel’s present. What happens is offstage or in the past, and often told indirectly, with the emphasis on the reaction to those developments.

As presented here, my interests were too much distributed among Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Stamped Paid. Might the latter two, in fact, have been combined? And Beloved, torn between being real and being a ghost, is not vivid enough. She is described more through others reacting to her than through her acting on them. She thus becomes a symbol more than a real person. Especially when she is naked at the end, and some outsiders see her and some do not.

This work does not urge me to seek further Morrison. I must work too hard to understand what is going on. Which is deliberate, as I said, for the Foreword states: “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”

This is a valid purpose. And the work is beautifully written. But the approach makes it difficult to identify with the characters, as the author both moves from one character to another and moves back and forth in time. This is another case in which the events are not told sequentially. Often this is to hide the lack of a dramatic cause and effect, but here it is also because Morrison is emphasizing the significance of the events rather than the events themselves, and the repercussions of the events rather than their causes.

I can understand why Morrison is thought of so highly. Her message, her portrait of where today’s black society came from, is important. And perhaps requiring the reader to dig for that portrait and its repercussions is a valid means to impress that history on the white reader. But I for one would rather have been so immersed in the fate of these characters—instead of having to figure them out—that the same message would have been implanted in my emotions as much as in my mind. Which, I suggest, is the more traditional literary approach. And one that I am more comfortable with.

I regret my reaction to this work. I am still a conservative in literary terms, however, even if I am liberal in social and political terms. (June, 2015)

Four Letters of Love, by Niall Williams

This is a beautifully written 1998 novel that troubled me during the reading, but then was spellbinding toward the end, except a conclusion that seemed to be just but also arbitrary. Overall, this is a love story between Isabel and Nicholas, who never meet until the final forty pages—forty pages that are the highlight of the novel. They do not meet because Nicholas lives in a Dublin suburb with his father William Coughlin, a civil servant whom God told to become an artist, and his mother Bette; while Isabel lives on an island off the west coast of Ireland with her father Muiris Gore, the local schoolmaster, her mother Margaret, and her brother Sean.

I was troubled first because the lovers take so long to meet, but also because Isabel’s life is told in the third person and Nicholas’ in the first person. In an afterward, the author explains that Nicholas is really telling Isabel’s story; and that the lovers do not meet until late in the story because what interests him most here is the pattern or design in life that brings people together, not what happens afterward. Which I can certainly testify to in my own life, where the pattern of losing my parents and encountering my one love is far more interesting, to anyone outside my family, than the life that followed.

Another element that bothered me was the arbitrariness of the ending. Which the author also explains. I noted the significance of his line that “the plots of love and God are one and the same thing.” Meaning, I felt, that God is love, and that the love between humans is a metaphor for the relationship between God and all humans. But Williams also means that, despite all the obstacles, this love story was inevitable, “that loving Isabel Gore was what Nicholas Coughlin was born to do.”

Another aspect of the ending was also bothersome. There is almost unbearable tension in waiting for the outcome of the last four love letters that Nicholas writes—that is, learning the final destiny of these lovers, whether they will be together or apart—but that destiny reverses itself too many times. Indeed, the final answer seems almost arbitrary—until one realizes it fits the author’s theme. But I do question the need for so many reversals.

There is a spiritual magic that fits seamlessly into this novel, both because of its mystical Irish setting and because of the link it makes between the living and the dead. That is, Nicholas’ dead father, the creator of a painting that brings Nicholas to Isabel’s world, is very alive in the first part of the book, as Nicholas tries to connect with him; and then his father’s spirit does connect, appearing at crucial moments to aid his son’s pursuit of Isabel.

Another mysterious element is the stroke that early in the novel paralyzes Sean, Isabel’s brother. There is no explanation, but Isabel blames herself. And then Nicholas arrives on the island, to buy back his father’s painting as his own means of connecting with him. Whereupon, he takes Sean to the same site where Sean suffered the stroke, and the boy is cured—which is long before Nicholas meets and falls in love with Isabel.

Nicholas has no explanation for the cure, indeed denies he has done anything, but it as if he has brought a mysterious goodness to the family on this island, a goodness that will later impress Isabel. One can only suggest that this goodness comes from God, and is part of the destiny that moves all our lives.

While organized religion plays no role in this novel, the work is deeply spiritual, and God is present everywhere in the lives of these characters—in their loves, their dreams, their inspiration, and their fate. Indeed, early on, the narrator Nicholas writes about his boyhood. “It seemed to me, God came to live in our house. He was not often spoken of, and was never addressed. And yet we knew he was there. Not exactly holy, not exactly prayerful, but a kind of presence.” It is this presence, one senses, that follows Nicholas to the island and perhaps results in the cure of Sean.

Another mysterious element are the flies that inundate the island as the love of Isabel and Nicholas is challenged by Isabel’s mother. Except, they do not invade the cottage where the good Nicholas is staying—as if the evil of their separation exists elsewhere. And these flies vanish when the human obstacle to the couple’s love no longer exists.

As I approached the ending, this novel seemed to be leading toward tragedy, toward a death of one of these characters that so engaged me. But Williams’ interest is not in creating a literary impact; it is in portraying human fulfillment, in destinies he sees infused by love, and by the loving hand of God. And who am I to dispute the appropriateness of that approach in a work of literature?

When Williams writes, “the plots of love and God are the same thing,” he is writing about more than Nicholas and Isabel. For there are other love stories here, that of William Coughlin and his wife and how they met, that of Muiris Gore and his wife, both how they met and how Margaret sustains their love (whereas Nicholas’ mother Bette could not), that of Isabel and her brother Sean, that of Peader O’Luing’s pursuit of and appeal to Isabel, and that of Nicholas and his father William.

Williams also captures the many permutations of love in the thoughts of Isabel’s mother: ”If Margaret Gore had spoken to her daughter she could have told her. In love everything changes, and continues changing all the time. There is no stillness, no stopped clock of the heart in which the moment of happiness holds forever, but only the constant whirring forward motion of desire and need, rising and falling, falling and rising, full of doubts then certainties that moment by moment change and become doubts again.”

Despite my many criticisms of this novel, it confirms my interest in reading more of Williams. First, because of his beautiful, evocative style, and then because of the presence of many varieties of love, but mainly because the spirit of God impacts the lives of these characters. As Kathleen Weber wrote perceptively in the Times, this novel gives us “ a place devoted to the belief in miracles and the obsessive power of love.” (January, 2015)