“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 to him in his life — good or bad — had been in motion the morning that he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”
So begins the story of Joe Coughlin, an Irish lad whose father is a corrupt police officer in Boston during the Prohibition era. Like most of Lehane’s novels, Live by Night begins in Boston where Lehane’s characters love, murder and dance surrounded by the city’s familiar landmarks. The narrative lovingly captures the gin mills and speakeasies of the “roaring 20’s” as well as the opulent lifestyle of the city’s gang lords and politicians. Boston’s underbelly is depicted too, with slums, dark streets and “blind tigers” filled with blacks, Cubans and shanty Irish — all looking for a fight. It is a world that Joe Coughlin and his two brothers move through with style and confidence ... Well, for a while.
Ah, but Joe is about to be exiled ... not only from Boston but from everything he holds dear. That includes Emma Gould (presumed dead), his father (who has rejected his son), and his two brothers. Suddenly, Joe is on his way to prison where he must learn a new set of survival tactics. For a decade, he finds himself serving as the right-hand of Maso Pescatore, an aging warlord, who continues to rule Boston’s underworld from prison. Joe is valuable to Maso because Maso can use Joe to get to his father, the corrupt and powerful police officer. As a result, Joe’s father is forced to be a reluctant accomplice to Maso’s criminal activities. Joe lives to walk out of prison, but it comes at a brutal cost. During his 10-year sojourn in hell, Joe has learned to “live by night.”
As Joe explains it, people like his brothers live in a bright and orderly world governed by rules. By choosing to “live by night,” Joe endorses an exciting world of violence and chaos where theft and robbery are talents to be acquired by experience. And that isn’t all. Joe’s freedom requires that he move to Tampa, Fla., a place of tropical heat, raging racial strife, and an obscenely luxuriant lifestyle based on the manufacture of illicit spirits — rum, to be exact. Joe, backed by Maso’s crime syndicate, is to be Tampa’s new warlord. It is a position that he can only hold by destroying anyone who opposes him.
At this point, Live by Night begins to resemble Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as Joe builds a “family” consisting of devoted followers who protect their “warlord” with a fierce devotion. In the world of prohibition and organized crime, Tampa becomes known as “Little Chicago,” and Joe finds himself dealing with Lucky Luciano’s henchmen as well as Cuban rum runners, Spanish gangs and one of the most powerful, brutal and infamous Ku Klux Klan operations in the South. Ironically, Joe finds his thriving moonshine operations equally threatened by a charismatic and mentally unstable female evangelist, Loretta Figgis. At times, it seems that Joe manages to survive only because these factions spend a great deal of time fighting each other.
Eventually, Joe Coughlin becomes so successful in the burgeoning world of bootleg operations — both before and after Prohibition — he is sent, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, to Cuba where he learns to survive in yet another world of decadence and corruption. This is where he meets Gracelia Corrales and her brother, Esteban, and the three become devoted friends. Esteban, a gifted photographer and Gracelia, a fervent rebel, introduce Joe to the lush and sensual land of tobacco, rum and a thriving alcohol/prostitution racket. After a bit of sparring and verbal dueling, Joe and Gracelia become lovers and LeHane devotes pages to the details of their love-making. The result is an excess of steamy passion. In fact, the only aspect of Live by Night that rivals these sexual bouts are those devoted to violence and bloodshed.
LeHane is at his best in creating atmosphere. The passages that define Tampa during the Prohibition era are a marvelous blend of sensory details. A bygone era comes to life in the descriptions of nightclubs, plantations and social events where opera stars and classical musicians perform for corrupt and wealthy patrons. Heat permeates everything. One of the most memorable passages in Live by Night involves the cigar factories that employed thousands of workers to roll the tobacco. Eventually, the workers were replaced by machines, but for a brief time “readers” were posted in the factories to read to the workers while they performed their monotonous duties. They read classics — Shakespeare, Dickens, Chekhov. One can’t help but wonder what affect this activity had on the workers.
In the final analysis, Live by Night qualifies as one of LeHane’s best. The narrative exudes blood, sweat and suspense. Joe Coughlin’s journey from Boston to Cuba reads like a dark version of Candide. Joe emerges from each experience with a few more scars and a growing suspicion that the innocent are always victimized. He seems to be slowly building a plan that allows him to survive while doing a minimal amount of harm to others. Of course, he insists that life remain “interesting.” Each encounter renders this more difficult. He finds that he must revise and compromise if he is to continue to be “an outlaw instead of a gangster.”
And what about Emma Gould, Joe’s lost love? She didn’t die, you know. No, she is actually in Cuba! What about Emma’s other lover, Albert White, Joe’s “nemesis” that pursues him from Boston to Cuba? I don’t think you want me to answer those questions.
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane. HarperCollins, Publishers, 2012. 416 pages.