“The people we service? They visit the night. But we live in it. They rent what we own.”
I suspected I’d like Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night by when I read the title of the Chapter One, ‘A Twelve O’Clock Fella in a Nine O’Clock Town’. With the opening line, ‘Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement’, I was hooked.
Lehane combines an engrossing plot and seamless historical setting with complex, credible characters, expressing it all in hard-boiled poetry.
Live By Night is drama in three acts. Part 1 takes place in Boston between 1926 and 1929, starting with the moment where Joe Coughlin crosses paths with Emma Gould as he robs a speakeasy owned by crime boss Albert White. Joe is besotted by Emma, her ‘birthmark the color of wet sand’, her sangfroid. But Emma is Albert White’s girl, and you know it’s all going to end in tears even before the heist supposed to fund their getaway goes wrong and two cops die.
Joe ends up in the Charlestown Penitentiary but not before his father Thomas Coughlin, a high-ranking cop in the Boston Police Department, orders him beaten into a coma.
While Joe is doing time, a war is raging between Albert White and his chief competitor Maso Pescatore for control of Boston’s speakeasy trade. The alliances Joe forges in prison sent him on the path to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where part 2 of the book is set, covering the years 1929-33.
While the Prohibition era continues to provide rich fodder for American fiction, I enjoyed the focus in Live By Night on a part of the United States I knew little about. The Ybor City of Lehane’s novel is a neighbourhood built on cigar factories, where ethnic tensions simmer among Italians, white Cubans, black Cubans, Spaniards, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Americanos.
Into this environment, Joe Coughlin brings a ruthless pragmatism that sees him become so successful a bootlegger that he fears he is ‘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.’
But good life cannot last for Joe. His destiny has been foreshadowed, if not in the book’s opening line, then in this exchange between Joe and his father Thomas Coughlin in the second chapter:
“What I’ve 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 mark you as deserving of their punishment.”
…”And what exactly are these violent offspring punishing me for again?”
“The carelessness of their reproduction.” His father leaned forward, elbows on the table, palms pressed together. “Joseph.”
“Joseph, violence breeds violence. It’s an absolute.”
That part 3 of the novel, set in 1933-35, is called ‘All the Violent Children’ speaks for itself.
Live By Night works brilliantly as hard-boiled crime fiction, or as The New York Times referred to it, ‘a Tommy-gun salute to vintage noir.’ But it avoids glamorising violence with its ruminations on the big existential questions and the absolutism Joe’s father alludes to. As charismatic and sympathetic as Joe Coughlin might be, Lehane doesn’t let us forget about those savage, mindless offspring of his.
Though the ending feels rushed, it also feels right.