Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

I've been a fan of Lehane's novels ever since the first one came out, long before the films and the awards. Although their violence is more graphic than I prefer, I love the strength and clarity of his prose, the depth of his characters, and the satisfying intricacy of his plots. I love the way Boston itself is a vibrant character in his stories.

Live by Night is the story of Joe Coughlin, a petty thief who happens to be the son of a chief of police, pulling heists with his two chums, when by mistake they rob a speakeasy owned by the powerful Albert White. Joe, more than his friends, intuits the possibilities in the scene and their ramifications. While they manage to escape with their skins, Joe has left behind his heart, given irrevocably to White's girlfriend, the beautiful Emma Gould, whom he sets out to steal as well.

This story is a sequel of sorts to his immense novel of Boston in the dawn of the 20th century, The Given Day. It's not necessary to have read the earlier novel, in which Joe is a minor character. We start here in 1926, seven years after the end of The Given Day. The Jazz Age is in full swing, and Prohibition is giving rise to criminal mobs while undermining everyone's sense of what it means to be law-abiding.

A tale of gangsters and mobs, filled with the violence and duplicity that comes with that way of life, the story follows Joe's rise in the world of crime, including his eventual move to Florida to build a rum-running empire. It's not a world I would normally choose to read about, but as always Lehane's prose draws me in. I hate the violence, and Joe himself is ambivalent about it.

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.

The people in Lehane's novels go beyond stereotypes to probe the complex and conflicting motives and desires that drive us. We make choices, compelled by conscious and unconscious forces, and we learn to live with the consequences.

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.

Joe has always considered himself to be an outlaw, not a gangster. Someone who chooses to go his own way instead of abiding by society's rules, the rules of the daytime whose denizens have “sold out the truth of yourself for the story of yourself”. I remember pulling all-nighters as a student, the sense of power when you look out over the sleeping city and think I alone am awake. I own the night. I own the city.

His father plays a small but critical role here, and the theme of fathers and sons is subtly developed in a number of ways. Delusion and deceit, including self-delusion, thread through both the violence and the tenderness, through the betrayals and the love, the alliances and the friendship.

It takes a lot to keep me interested in a novel about gangsters, especially when it moves from Boston to Florida, but Lehane pulls it off. This book didn't pack the emotional wallop for me that his other books, including The Given Day, deliver but that probably says more about me than about the book. Have you ever been surprised into liking a book that you were sure you'd dislike?

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