There’s an element that bugged the heck out of me all the way through this novel, so let me just get it out of the way and move on, since this was a read I really enjoyed.
Despite an abundance of ideas in Live By Night, ideas which relate to the story’s era and setting: the futility of Prohibition, Jazz Age excess, bootlegging and gangland violence, racism, the Cuban émigré community in Florida - the main character, Joe Coughlin, isn’t given any real purpose or object to pursue. What are the motivating factors in Joe’s life that take him from Boston Irish middle-class comfort and respectability to sitting on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, tied to a chair, his feet incased in a block of cement? Live By Night is more a series of events in a gangster’s life without the structure of what Robert McKee calls a “controlling idea.”
Readers of The Given Day will know Joe’s family history. The youngest son of a celebrated Boston police captain, he turns his back on a life of fighting crime to become a criminal himself. This father-son conflict theme is the focus of Joe’s internal story, but is not strong evidence as the cause of his behavior. It’s not necessary to have read The Given Day to get deliciously caught up in Live By Night, but the forces that motivate Joe are implied by the events of the previous novel (which is fantastic, by the way) and are left to take root in the overworked symbolism of a Philippe Patek watch.
Okay, okay, that’s just me. You can forget all the story structure stuff and jump on the running board of your 1929 Studebaker Dictator 6 and enjoy the ride. Dennis Lehane, who has an amazing ability to adapt his tone to fit the era of which he writes, works crime noir magic in Live By Night. This is a story of moods, settings and characters rendered in period details so exact you sweat and cower in a Boston prison cell, or sweat and drink in a Florida speakeasy, or sweat and yearn watching a beautiful woman’s hips sway underneath a threadbare skirt as if you were Joe’s shadow.
You can feel the author’s giddiness in his own story, the breathless ride he can’t wait for you to experience. He works in a bit of ruminative social psychology, really wanting you to root for the good guy gone bad who never loses his good heart. It’s an homage to the Humphrey Bogart anti-hero that makes the reader yearn for the putt-putt of a Tommy gun and a smartly –turned Fedora, while wriggling uncomfortably with the incongruous romance of the gangster’s life.
Lehane writes female characters particularly well. Live By Night offers a triangle of remarkable women, each of whom leaves indelible imprints of lust, compassion and tragedy at significant stages of Joe’s coming-of-outlaw.
Get lost in the gorgeous details and the nail-biting moments and never mind the incomplete redemption. Or that dire cement block. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Joe Coughlin.