November 09, 2012

Live by Night - a retro delight

Dennis Lehane, author of the Kenzie and Gennaro detective series, has started to broaden his remit. First came Mystic River and Shutter Island, both made into commercially successful films, then came The Given Day, a historical novel set during the time of the Boston Police riots after the first World War. Live by Night continues the story of the Coughlin family begun in The Given Day, this time focusing on younger brother Joe Coughlin and his rise through the criminal ranks of the emerging Mafia.

Joe's story isn't unusual. He's involved in bank robbery to begin with, then gets drawn into larger-scale larceny - rum-running and prostitution and gambling. We see him move from Boston down to Ybor in Florida, there to run the operation for his mafia mentor, Maso. He falls for a woman who he loses and then finds another one with whom he spends a reclusive life. He meets rich and important people and kills some of them - for the sake of business.

None of this adds to our understanding of what life was like for hoodlums in the twenties and thirties. In fact, many of the plot manoeuverings are entirely predictable.

What raises the book, however, are two things: the quality of the observation and the quality of the writing. Consider this (lengthy) excerpt:

Edwin Mulver stepped back, his chin tilted up, as Florence Ferrel patted the buns of her hair one more time and then exhaled into her radiophone. The exhalation turned, without warning, into a mountain peak of a high note that thrummed through the crowd and climbed three stories to the ceiling. It was a sound so extravagant and yet so authentic it filled Joe with an awful loneliness. She was bearing forth something from the gods, and as it moved from her body into his, Joe realized he would die someday. He knew it in a different way than he’d known it coming through the door. Coming through the door, it had been a distant possibility. Now, it was a callous fact, indifferent to his dismay. In the face of such clear evidence of the otherworldly, he knew, beyond argument, that he was mortal and insignificant and had been taking steps out of the world since the day he’d entered it.   
     As she ventured deeper into the aria, the notes grew ever higher, ever longer, and Joe pictured her voice as a dark ocean, beyond end, beyond depth. He looked around at the men in their tuxedos and the women in their glittering taffeta and silk sheaths and lace wreaths, at the champagne flowing from a fountain in the center of the lobby. He recognized a judge and Mayor Curley and Governor Fuller and another infielder for the Sox, Baby Doll Jacobson. By one of the pianos, he saw Constance Flagstead, a local stage star, flirting with Ira Bumtroth, a known numbers man. Some people were laughing, and others tried so hard to look respectable it was laughable. He saw stern men with muttonchop sideburns and wizened matrons with skirts the shape of church bells. He identified Brahmins and blue bloods and Daughters of the American Revolution. He noted bootleggers and bootlegger lawyers and even the tennis player Rory Johannsen, who’d made it to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year before being knocked out by the Frenchman Henri Cochet. He saw bespectacled intellectuals trying not to get caught looking at frivolous flappers with insipid conversational skills but sparkling eyes and dazzling legs . . . and all of them soon to vanish from the earth. Fifty years from now, someone could look at a photograph of this night and most of the people in the room would be dead, and the rest would be on their way.
Note how the woman's singing 'filled Joe with an awful loneliness' - the beginning of the sentence leads one to believe that the feelings he's about to express will be exultant or inspired. But instead he feels lonely. This reversal is typical of Lehane. He sets up situations where you're led to believe that one outcome is inevitable, then he reverses it, surprising you so that you feel a grin spread across your face. He does it at an emotional level but also at the level of the scene, where Joe, for instance, confronts a bad guy who thinks he has the upper hand, only for that to be reversed leaving Joe on top.

The second paragraph is a masterclass in how to produce an effect. There is precise description of the 'glittering taffeta and silk sheaths and lace wreaths', but also the use of names and occupations mirrors Fitzgerald's famous scene in The Great Gatsby, where Nick Carraway describes the visitors at one of Gatsby's parties. I don't think this is accidental. The whole spread of Boston society is gathered in one room but also placed in a context by Lehane, because in fifty years' time they would all be dead or 'on their way.'

Lehane has an interesting conflict to work out in this book. Like George Pelecanos, he is often more interested in the moral dilemmas that people find themselves in as a result of their actions, and the consequences that arrive unexpectedly. Here Joe seems to have no moral compass when it comes to taking out other bad guys - so that like Walter White in Breaking Bad, he exults in the win - but Lehane works hard to make us empathise with him when he's not 'at work', so to speak. To do this, in essence, he makes Joe nice to poor people and children and to the women he loves. Joe sees himself perhaps like a Robin Hood character, especially in the last act, set in Cuba, where he begins to put his wealth to positive use. Also, at a technical level, Lehane places us very close to Joe's consciousness:
When Maso had first proposed that Joe take over his West Florida operations, he’d warned him about the heat. But Joe still wasn’t prepared for the wall of it that met him when he stepped onto the platform at Tampa Union Station on an August morning in 1929. He wore a summer-weight glen plaid suit. He’d left the vest behind in his suitcase, but standing on the platform, waiting for the porter to bring his bags, jacket over his arm and tie loosened, he was soaked by the time he finished smoking a cigarette. He’d removed his Wilton when he stepped off the train, worried that the heat would leach the pomade from his hair and suck it into the silk lining, but he put it back on to protect his skull from the sun needles as more pores in his chest and arms sprang leaks.
     It wasn’t just the sun, which hung high and white in a sky swept so clear of clouds it was as if clouds had never existed (and maybe they didn’t down here; Joe had no idea), it was the jungle humidity, like he was wrapped inside a ball of steel wool someone had dropped into a pot of oil. And every minute or so, the burner got turned up another notch.
Here we see and feel the Florida heat from Joe's perspective. We're not just told that it's hot - we experience it as Joe does: the wall of heat, the summer-weight glen plaid suit, being soaked, worry that the sun would ruin the product in his hair, the pores in his chest and arms springing leaks ... Every detail reflects Joe's experience. We don't see him from the outside, the language takes us into his moment-by-moment existence. In this way, we're strapped tight to his view of the world and find it easy to empathise when he kills the bad guys (it's bidness, right?) or falls in love with the dreamy Emma.

Because of our understanding of Joe and what drives him, we overlook the predictability of the storyline. It's varied and exciting enough, but not new. During the course of our reading the book, however, this doesn't matter. We're caught up in Joe's career trajectory and want to know how it ends, especially as the first lines of the book deliver a whopping hook:
Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.   
This wonderful opening begs us to read more - if only to find out whether he escapes - while also sets in motion the primary driving force of the plot: his meeting with Emma Gould.

Lehane's sense of structure, his ability to provide detailed description that is believable and also sets a context, and his knack for writing scenes that are gripping but often end where we least expect them to, all lead to a great read. The book is called Live by Night, which may or may not be a hat-tip to an old film with a not-too-dissimilar plot, They Live by Night. This might suggest that the book is derivative, and in the sense that many of the plot developments are unexceptional, this might be true. However, this doesn't detract from the sheer pleasure that can be had from reading anything that Dennis Lehane writes. He's just such a good writer.

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