Review: Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Review: Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

I’ve long been a fan of Dennis Lehane’s novels.

I was solidly hooked once Sarah introduced me to his first book, A Drink Before the War, so by the time I held his fourth novel Gone, Baby, Gone (which is also an excellent movie), the hook was set. When I saw he had a new book, Live By Night, coming out, I preordered it with great expectations.

I have no concerns about disappointment when a Lehane book is in my grip.

Live By Night features minor characters created in The Given Day, his lengthy previous novel, though it is not necessary to read that novel prior to reading this one. Lehane’s writing treats his readers with exact historical background. While reading The Given Day, I would pause in my reading to Google details from the book. They were always meticulously researched.

Yes, there was really a Molasses Flood in 1919 Boston. That’s right. Two-and-a-half million gallons of crude molasses heated up to the point where an eruption from the tower holding it resulted in a thick, hot flood of the sticky stuff traveling at 35 miles per hour with waves of eight to fifteen feet. Twenty-one people died in the scalding river of molasses. 

I admit that it took me twice as long to read The Given Day than it should have—all that fact checking got in the way.

With this next book, I learned my lesson. I read the 400-page Live By Night in two days without once checking the facts. Lehane’s voracity can’t be questioned. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

In Live by Night, the 1920s are roaring out of control with speakeasies thriving, gangsters becoming rich and powerful, underground booze flowing like the waterfalls of Shenondoah National Park. Into this mix comes Joe Coughlin, the son Boston’s police chief who raised him with strict Catholic values in a no-nonsense environment where the hand would lash out before the facts were clear. 

Drawn to the romance, the spoils, the wealth and the flash of being an outlaw, Joe rejects his father’s life choices and embarks on his own. Living on the dark side takes Joe from the flash and grit of Boston, to the sensual beauty of Tampa and finally to Cuba. In stark contrast to Boston or Tampa, Cuba’s lure is one of beautiful land, fine people and the roots of his earlier faith and values. 

Reveling in the glamour and wealth created by all the rum and bootlegging that flowed straight out of Prohibition, Joe makes it big. But Joe’s story is not a simple one. The complexity comes through the language, the situations, the sorrow and the love that Joe encounters. There’s the glitz of the Jazz Age, the horror of brutality foisted upon those who got in the way of the gangsters, characters riding high on illegal booze, the ego-centricities of those who would not look beyond their own interests, the greed, the abiding love of family and finally there is a beautiful love story that holds the thread of Joe’s life into a tangible, nearly ethereal peace. 

Seen through Joe’s eyes, characters take on a realness that I rarely see in literature. When Joe’s caught in a critical situation he sizes it up with this observation.

…the lanky one worried Joe. Something about him was too coiled and too keen. He took his time when he looked at you and he didn’t care what you thought about it.

“You the ones got blowed up?” His teeth, as Joe had guessed, were gray and slanted, several tipping back into his mouth like old headstones in a flooded graveyard.

Images of a coiled creature and headstones say it all. This is core to Lehane’s writing.

He tells a great story that leaves indelible images the reader owns and feels.

The pace is quick, almost cinematic. I read it so so quickly, it felt like my eyes were on wheels as I raced from chapter to chapter, a harrowing situation bumping up against a powerful love story with a bit of philosophy to temper the reading experience with thoughtful impressions. While in a dire situation, Joe muses,

You didn’t die and go to a better place; this was the better place because you weren’t dead. Heaven wasn’t in the clouds; it was in the air in your lungs.

In others words, there’s something for everyone in Live By Night. I closed the book upon its final page at 1:00 A.M but was unable to settle my mind into sleep. The richness of  the characterizations, the harsh reality of the era and the power of Lehane’s writing doesn’t end with the last word on the last page.

Live by Night stays with you, prodding you to ponder Joe Coughlin and all he loved and all he finally stood for.

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