Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

“The night,” Joe said. “Tastes too good. You live by day, you play by their rules. So we live by night and play by ours.”

While I watched the film Mystic River and enjoyed it, I’ve always passed on Dennis Lehane novels, but his latest, Live By Night sounded too good to miss. The book, which screams for a film adaptation, is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, the son of a prominent Boston police officer. Just as I finished the book, I read that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company bought the film rights. I hope that DiCaprio takes the main role as he’d be my pick for Joe Coughlin.

The book begins very strongly and drops us right in the action with Joe about to meet his death:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life–good or bad–had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

Now with an opening like that, how can you not continue?

From this point, the novel goes back in time and the story picks up in 1926, with Joe, a 19-year-old hood who works for bootlegger Tim Hickey, knocking off a speakeasy with the Bartolo brothers. Joe is initially unaware that the joint belongs to Hickey’s arch-enemy Albert White, and he’s also unaware that the cool, unflappable girl who serves the drinks, Emma Gould, is also Albert’s mistress. Joe is too young and too smitten to read the danger signals:

Behind Emma’s pale eyes and pale skin lay something coiled and caged. And not caged in a way that it wanted to come out. Caged in a way that demanded nothing come in.

It’s with the introduction of Emma that we see Joe’s major character traits–both the flaws and the weaknesses as he makes decisions that will come back to haunt him for the rest of his life. Live By Night is the bio of Joe who eventually becomes a major Irish-American gangster–or outlaw as he prefers to be called. Joe’s life is defined by its times, so the backdrop to Joe’s illegal life is the fallout from the 1919 Boston Police Strike which devastated Joe’s family, Prohibition and the Depression. While Joe’s former Boston Police force brothers have been cast adrift by the strike, Joe has taken another path entirely, and at thirteen, he was a ‘juvenile delinquent,’ knocking off newsstands with his partners-in-crime, the Bartolo brothers. Joe makes the choice to “live by night” and doesn’t see too great a difference between supposedly legal and illegal lives, and gradually he builds an empire, an illegal life built in response to the times.

There are a couple of times throughout the novel when it’s not certain whether Joe will survive, and so it’s evidence of the novel’s strengths that the scenes are packed with tension even though that we know on the first page that he has survived at least several decades. The plot, packed with some great scenes, is arguably stronger for about the first half of the novel as Joe struggles to survive through various hostile situations, and as Lehane illustrates, through Joe’s choices, we see that character is fate.

“Someone else–a real good egg of a fella–will stand up for you in the yard or in the mess hall. And after he backs the other man down, he’ll offer you his protection for the length of your sentence. Joe? Listen to me. That’s the man you hurt. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough to hurt you. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough again to hurt you. You take his elbow or his kneecap. Or both.”

After the halfway point, for this reader, the novel’s pacing slowed down, and the second half of the novel is dominated by a love story. While I still enjoyed the tale of a gangster’s genesis shaped by the excesses and lucrative vices buried deep in the repressive layers of American culture, and the faithful creation of a flawed man, there’s a tiny bit of moralizing that creeps in here as he faces off not just other gangs but the KKK and religious nutcases, so that Joe becomes an iconic figure, wise, just, and meting out decisions that would have made Solomon wonder if he’d done the right thing. It’s just a bit overdone, and for this reader, Joe’s not a ruthless enough creation. We see Joe, an intelligent character make choices that are not always the smartest but which are pivotal to his character. There’s part of Joe, no matter how succesful he becomes, that’s uncomfortable with the uglier side of his life, but Joe chooses to bury those aspects of his profession, and the author follows suit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is undermined by having Joe as the most self-actualized character in the novel, and the result is a dissonance that introduces character credibility issues.  That complaint aside, I can see this will make a brilliant film.

Live by Night is flawed but I’d hazard a guess that the flaws won’t deter Lehane fans, and I would certainly read another novel by this author. Apparently Lehane’s earlier novel The Given Day (called the author’s opus by some of his fans) includes the story of Joe’s family against the backdrop of Boston history, and after finishing Live by Night, I bought the earlier novel.

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Lehane Dennis

9 responses to “Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

  1. Brian Joseph

    Thought provoking character analysis Guy.I have often asked myself, when watching films or reading books bout criminals and other nefarious characters, if sometimes the great writers impart too much depth to these folks. I understand that this is not exactly what you are referring to here. But the idea of a wise and balanced gangster seems to me related concept.

    Perhaps all this is just a symptom of literary and cinematic imagination. Either way, I think that it can make for great stories.

  2. I’ve been tempted by Lehane a few times, but generally put off by the sheer length his novels seem to run to. This one, eh, the second half I think would kill me. I struggle to believe in successful gangsters who’re not basically psychopaths. I just find a wise and balanced guy who makes his living through prostitution, smuggling, exortion, fraud and murder a bit unlikely.

    Part of what makes The Sopranos so impressive is that Tony is credible both as family guy and as brutal thug, and is ultimately toxic for everyone around him (I’m on the penultimate season currently). You can see why he gets to the top, and it’s seductively easy to root for him, but then you’re reminded what he actually does for a living.

    Going way back, the old Cagney/Bogart double bill The Roaring Twenties does well with this. Bogart is a psychopath, Cagney more of an opportunist, and those traits drive much of the film.

    • Coughlin is basically a rum-runner and involved in the illegal booze biz, so it’s believable, I think, if he’s just on the transportation end of things that he’d have a harder time w/other elements of organised crime. The problem comes in when his business turns uglier (can’t give away too much here) and yet he also becomes an extremely well-balanced individual.

      This doesn’t seem to be the best Lehane out there–not that I would know, but just from reading reader reviews. I’m glad I read it. The first half was incredibly good.

      Bogart had that way of playing weary so well.

  3. I’ve only read Shutter Island that was such an amazing book. Ive got Mystic River as well but then I watched the movie and needed to let some time pass before I was going to read it.
    I wonder if there were never any “balanced gangsters”. I don’t think it’s entirely impossible but it depends how far they would go.

  4. acommonreaderuk

    Sounds like he’s trying to cram a little bit too much into that one. These books are going so well and then the love interest comes in! de Caprio will no doubt make a good job of this if he plays lead.
    The film Shutter Island was pretty good if I remember rightly.

  5. A well-balanced review. I’m not going to rush on this one

    PS: I recommended Broken Harbor to someone, she likes it too.

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