Dennis Lehane’s 2008 novel The Given Day was a bold move forward for the author of Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, a big fat romantic American epic about the Boston Police Strike of 1919. With his latest book in the Coughlin family saga, Live By Night, Lehane tackles the heady days of Prohibition, this time centering on young Joe Coughlin instead of eldest son Danny. Like The Given Day, Lehane tells a fast-paced story taking place over many years, giving the reader plenty of violence, period detail and great dialogue and characters. But where The Given Day was about an idealist fighting the good fight against impossible forces, Live By Night is a decidedly darker story of a man attempting to rise to power in the rum-running underworld while retaining his soul.
When we meet Joe Coughlin he’s a punk kid sticking up banks and card games with his buddies, throwing some tribute to a local Boston mob boss when he can. He’s rejected his well-to-do family in favor of being an outlaw, even found himself a gorgeous gal named Emma that he’s head-over-heels for. Thing is, Emma’s the rival boss’ mistress, and you better believe Albert White ain’t gonna stand for his woman two-timing him with some fucking getaway driver.
But that’s barely the first few chapters of this beast, dear reader, with the story spanning a decade and taking us from Boston to the Cuban/Spanish/Italian town of Ybor City outside of Tampa Bay and eventually to Cuba before it’s all over. As Joe’s power becomes greater he keeps trying to do the right or fair thing, often succeeding unless the circumstances leave absolutely no other option. But instead of this being the typical “descent of the soul” story, Lehane actually has a different theme on his mind.
There’s a fantastic moment near the end of the novel where Joe compares his struggles to that of the American Empire in the 20th Century and empires in general since recorded history. His actions at the tail end of his run have shown that it is possible to do good deeds in the wake of making bad money, a transaction that has made the world turn for centuries. He may be attempting to make a mint on the insanely short-sighted Volstead Act but, even with all the blood that’s shed in the name of that money, much good is able to come from it.
Live By Night is a far more complex and disturbing novel than its more melodramatic predecessor, but it’s not all darkness and challenging truths of American history. There’s a big fat romance at its heart, plenty of harrowing suspense and action scenes, a massive body count and a whole lot of Lehane’s sharp sense of humor. And if the last couple pages don’t make you squirt a few, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I, dear reader. Live By Night is up there with Lehane’s finest works, and seeing how that list includes the likes of Mystic River, Darkness Take My Hand and Gone Baby Gone, that is some high fucking praise indeed.