Live by Night

Live by Night - Dennis Lehane Little Joe Coughlin was only a bit player in The Given Day, but here he gets an entire novel all to himself. It's not necessary to have read The Given Day first. Live By Night makes a fine stand-alone novel. If you have read The Given Day, it will give you some understanding as to why Joe has chosen a career as a criminal. He was the neglected, often invisible youngest son. He observed how his father and brothers worked hard and lived within the law, and they were not rewarded for their pains. So he turned against the law and lives by the rules of the night. The Given Day ends a few days before the enforcement of Prohibition will begin. Live By Night picks up about seven years later, in 1926. Joe Coughlin is already deeply entrenched in the life of an outlaw. A bank robbery gone bad leaves him on the lam, and things go downhill from there. Joe does some time in prison, where he learns how to be an even better hoodlum. When he is released, he needs to be far away from his enemies in Boston. He goes to Tampa, Florida and works for a mobster operation that runs all up and down the East Coast. Florida is where the bulk of the novel takes place, specifically in Ybor City, where the various dark-skinned peoples dwell. Here we see how Joe has turned against his father's prejudices, choosing the company of Cubans and mixed-race people.There's not really a lot to analyze here in terms of our heroes and villains. Live By Night is essentially just a literary gangster novel. Its historical significance lies in showing the folly of Prohibition. All it did was breed vice and prevent regulation. It encouraged the formation of a new underground economy which became so powerful and well connected that it branched out into even more violent and profitable enterprises. I suppose I'll be in the minority, but I liked this one better than The Given Day. Live by Night covers a much longer stretch of time in fewer pages and moves along at a nice clip. It takes us up to the end of Prohibition and beyond. The dialogue is especially brilliant. It reveals the "bad guys" in all their complexity, whether fearful or conflicted or tender, and they're often very intelligent. They're not just dumb thugs with big guns and stock phrases like "Go for your heater."There were a couple of things that kept the book out of the five-star category for me. The first thing is the seven-year gap between the end of The Given Day and the start of Live By Night. We're given very little information about what happened in the interim. The second weakness is the way Joe's story ends. There's one major event that seems inevitable, and you can see it coming. When it does happen, the scene is clumsy -- more staged than realistic -- and it doesn't evoke the deep feeling it should. The aftermath of that event is rushed, and the close of the story isn't conclusive enough to be satisfying without a promise of more to come.