Updated - May 16, 2013 - see link at bottom
The opening scene of Dennis Lehane’s Prohibition gangster tale, Live by Night
has our hero, Joe Coughlin, on a tugboat, in the Gulf of Mexico, fitted for a nice set of cement footwear, while a dozen or so of his least favorite people prepare to help him into a final swim. It is from this moment that we look back over the years to 1926 to find out how Joe came to be in such peril. The first thing we see is Joe and two other petty crooks robbing a speakeasy owned by a Boston gangster. During the course of the event a masked Joe meets Emma Gould in a scene that might someday define the career of some rising young actress.
The Bartolo brothers relieved the card players of their weapons. The pistols made heavy thumps as they tossed them onto a nearby blackjack table, but the girl didn’t even flinch. In her eyes, firelights danced behind the gray. She stepped right up to his gun and said,” And what will the gentleman be having with his robbery this morning?”
With images of young Lauren Bacall as the femme fatale dancing in my head, and only on page 5, I was totally hooked!
The book is a sequel of sorts to Lehane’s ambitious The Given Day
, in which the name Coughlin also figured large, but there is no need to read the earlier work to appreciate this one. Lehane wanted to write a novel that echoed the mobster movies he grew up with.
I’ve always absolutely loved the time period. It’s probably my favorite time period in American history. Anything between the two world wars, the clothes, and the cars, and tommyguns. Maybe it was too much exposure to 1920s,1930s gangster movies when I was a kid… It was certainly interesting to me to see the seeds and the growth of what we understand now as the Mafia. This was seen as the end of the independent operator decade. This was fun to look at.
But he ran into a bit of interference after having written a few chapters. Boardwalk Empire machine-gunned onto the scene and that meant Lehane would have to focus on something other than whiskey as his substance Maguffin. Splitting his residence between Boston and Tampa, he had already become familiar with Ybor City, a part of Tampa which was a major entry point for prohibition era rum. The over-the-head lightbulb clicked on and it was off to the races. Rum instead of whiskey. And structurally, he decided to trace a reverse route. The rum entered through Florida and worked its way north. Joe Coughlin begins up north and heads south. Lehane found the era appealing for another reason.
I mean everybody smoked and didn’t know it was bad for them. And it was a time where, I think, there was some sort of ignorance is bliss. You also had a time in which the entire country turned against the law of the land which had to make it fun. Think about how much fun it was to contact a friend and say we’re meeting at the speakeasy tonight. Here’s the password.
Young Joe lands in a Boston jail, where he is befriended by a powerful mob boss, Thomaso Pescatore. Maso wants to leverage his access to Joe to get his dad, Thomas, Deputy Superintendent of the Boston Police, to take care of some things for him. Otherwise, well, he could not guarantee Joe’s safety. Joe becomes a Maso loyalist, demonstrates his value to this new boss and winds up being put in charge of Maso’s crime operation in Ybor City, Florida. That is where the bulk of the story takes place.
This is not some mindless good-guys vs bad-guys shoot-em-up. Lehane is a serious writer and there are larger issues under his microscope here. One is the impact of parents, fathers in particular on their children. Despite his calm demeanor and tasteful trappings, Joe’s father, Thomas, is no paragon of virtue. While he may decry his youngest son’s path it is clear that the rotten apple has not fallen far from a rotten tree. Later in the novel a gangster of some perception and skill presents a son who has inherited all dad’s worst qualities, and none of his better ones. Joe must confront his own feelings about parenthood when he
becomes a father. (this will no doubt be addressed in depth in Lehane’s next novel, which will feature Joe and his son in the 1940s) And the sins of another father are visited on his child in horrible ways. A closely related theme is the karma of violence
What I have learned is that violence procreates. And the children your violence produces will return to you as savage, mindless things. You won’t recognize them as yours, but they’ll recognize you. They’ll mark you as deserving of their punishment.
Lehane offers some thematic touchstones along the way. Thomas gives Joe a watch that has special meaning for him. It plays a role in saving Joe’s life, but also serves as a symbol for Joe eventually running out of time. A similar item is the appearance of a Florida panther, which may or may not actually be present at times, and is certainly a phantom at others, carrying concern about mortality.
Joe struggles with his belief system. He is not a stone cold killer, which puts him at a disadvantage with the company he keeps.
He feared this was all there was. Didn’t just fear it. Sitting in that ridiculous chair looking out the window at the yellow windows canted in the black water, he knew it. You didn’t die and go to a better place; this was the better place because you weren’t dead. Heaven wasn’t in the clouds; it was the air in your lungs.
He inquires into the beliefs others have about a life beyond during his journey, and also wonders what might take his place if it turns out there is no god.
“We’re not bad. Maybe we’re not good. I dunno. I just know we’re all scared.”
“Who’s scared?” she said.
“Who isn’t? The whole world. We tell ourselves we believe in this god or that god, this afterlife or that one, and maybe we do, but what we’re all thinking at the same time is, “What if we’re wrong? What if this is it? Well if it is, shit, I better get me a real big house and a real big car and a whole bunch of nice tie pins and pearl-handled walking stick and a—“
She was laughing now.
“—a toilet that washes my ass and my armpits. Because I need one of those.’” He’d been chuckling too, but the chuckles trailed off into the suds. “’but, wait, I believe in God. Just to be safe. But I believe in greed, too. Just to be safe.’”
America has a love-hate relationship with gangsters. On the one hand, we find appealing the image of the slick criminal getting over on, say, bankers. We see them not so much as bleak, soulless, bloody monsters but as outlaws. Joe struggles with the difference between being an outlaw, a romantic self-image, and a gangster, which, to Joe, is an acceptance that he is not a decent person after all.
Another notion, about types of criminality, that comes into play a time or three has just a touch of contemporary resonance.
“You, you buy into all this stuff about good guys and bad guys in the world. A loan shark breaks a guy’s leg for not paying his debt, a banker throws a guy out of his home for the same reason, and you think there’s a difference, like the banker’s just doing his job but the loan shark’s a criminal. I like the loan shark because he doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and I think the banker should be sitting where I’m sitting now. I’m not going to live some life where I pay my fucking taxes and fetch the boss a lemonade at the company picnic and buy life insurance. Get older, get fatter, so I can join a men’s club in Back Bay, smoke cigars with a bunch of assholes in a back room somewhere, talk about my squash game and my kid’s grades. Die at my desk, and they’ll already have scraped my name off the office door before the dirt’s hit the coffin”
“But that’s life,” Danny said
“That’s a life. You want to play by their rules? Go ahead. But I say their rules are bullshit. I say there are no rules but the ones a man makes for himself.”
This view is reinforced in a conversation Joe has with a business partner.
“We’re not our brother’s keeper, Joseph. In fact, it’s an insult to our brother to presume he can’t take care of himself.”
This could be a bit of Ayn Rand pillow whisperings or a 2012 GOP talking point.
Later, Joe is planning a gambling empire and notes again that criminality comes in various forms.
what he saw, clearer than any clear he’d ever known, was that the rich would come in here for the dazzle and the elegance and the chance to risk it all against a rigged game, as rigged as the one they’d been running on the poor for centuries.
Another passage made me think of the banality of evil in Nazi Germany.
Joe was reminded, not for the first time, that for such a violent business, it was filled with a surprising number of regular guys—men who loved their wives, who took their children on Saturday afternoon outings, men who worked on their automobiles and told jokes at the neighborhood lunch counter and worried what their mothers thought of them and went to Church to ask god’s forgiveness for all the terrible things they had to render unto Caesar in order to put food on the table.
In fact, one of the things I loved about this book is how many times a line or a passage summoned broader notions, or the scent of other classics. Here are a few:
Working class men had sons. Successful men had heirs.
We all believe lies that bring us more comfort than the truth.
She had that light about her that turned people into moths
I’ve got nothing against noble people, I’ve just noticed they rarely live past forty.”
“Achievement? Depends on luck—to be born in the right place at the right time and be of the right color. To live long enough to be in the right place at the right time to make one’s fortune. Yes, yes, hard work and talent make up the difference. They are crucial, and you know I’d never argue different. But the foundation of all lives is luck. Good or bad. Luck is life and life is luck. And it’s leaking from the moment it lands in your hand.
The Live by Night motif can be taken a few ways, as living outside the law, as living freely, as in surviving in an id-rich world, on the edge. When Joe was a young crook his boss would say to him. “The people we service? They visit the night. But we live in it. They rent what we own.” In a concrete sense, living by night means criminality, but it could also imply a more generic sense of extremity. But what drives someone to such extremes? And how do the stories we tell about ourselves affect who we are?
Something was getting lost in them, something that was starting to live by day, where the swells lived, where the insurance salesmen and the bankers lived, where the civic meetings were held and the little flags were waved at the Main Street parades, where you sold out the truth of yourself for the story of yourself. …the reality was, he liked the story of himself. Liked it better than the truth of himself. In the truth of himself, he was second class and grubby and always out of step. He still had his Boston accent and didn’t know how to dress right, and he thought too many thoughts that most people would find “funny.” The truth of himself was a scared little boy, mislaid by his parents like reading glasses on a Sunday afternoon, treated to random kindnesses by older brothers who came without notice and departed without warning. The truth of himself was a lonely boy in an empty house, waiting or someone to knock on his bedroom door and ask if he was ok.
The story of himself, on the other hand, was of a gangster prince. A man who had a full-time driver and bodyguard. A man of wealth and stature. A man for whom people abandoned their seats simply because he coveted them
Maybe living by night is being in the dream instead of the reality.
But for all his serious flaws, I found it was possible to relate to Joe, to root for him, even. And Lehane has populated his tale with a colorful array of supporting characters, in varying shades. There is not a lot here by way of damsels in distress. Lehane’s women are not exactly blushing flowers. From the iron-nerved Emma, to a wildly successful evangelical preacher, Loretta, to the elegant Graciela, the women are rich presences in the story. This is a result of the presence in Lehanes’s life, he says, of plenty of very tough women when he was growing up.
On a gut level, it felt to me that a bit of Casablanca DNA seems to run through this story. In this world of low expectations, we can feel some empathy for Joe because he is no sociopath, even though he swims in a shiver of sharks. No, Joe is no Rick, and Emma and Loretta are no freedom fighters, (Graciela actually may be) but having established his dark roots, there is a feeling of potential for hope, for redemption, for maybe a chance to live by day, a desire to do the right thing, that gives the story poignancy. All the great lines certainly helped. I cannot think of a book I have read in recent memory that offered up so many. Ben Affleck is already in negotiations to write, direct and star in the movie. I am not sure I see him in this role, but this could be the beginning of a beautiful film.
So tip back on your panama hat, make sure the ceiling fan is spinning fast enough to cool your sweat before it plunges under your collar, check that the safety for that piece under your jacket is switched on, light up one of those very special Cubans, hoist your Bacardi cocktail and settle back. You're in for a steamin’ good time.
The Harper Collins reading group guide
and no, I did not look at this before setting fingers to keyboard.
Steve Inskeep (who is usually insufferable) did a nice interview
with Lehane on NPR’s Morning Edition. This is the source of the Lehane quotes at the top of the review.
Janet Maslin’s sterling NY Times review “His Days of Crime May End Real Soon”
May 2, 2013 - Live by Night wins the Edgar Award
for best novel
The paperback was released on 5/14/13