Consider the mobster: a fedora, rakishly cocked. A pinstripe suit. A tommy gun. A man above the law, bound instead by family and esoteric honor, sworn enemy to stoolies and rats. Dennis Lehane trades on these tropes — some might say clichés — in his latest novel, “Live by Night,” the second installment in his trilogy about the Coughlins, an Irish family of lawmen living in Boston at the turn of the century. This volume centers on Joe, the baby, who defies his police chief father for a life of crime.
Joe sets off on his remarkable career setting fire to newspaper boxes for profit. Under the tutelage of a mob boss named Hickey, he branches out into armed robbery, rum running, and enforcement. His troubles begin when he meets a slinky dame from Charlestown named Emma Gould, who just happens to be the mistress of Hickey’s rival, Albert White. Joe pulls an unsanctioned bank job so he can run away with Emma, thus setting in motion a chain of events that will affect his life’s course for the next decade — the duration of the book — taking him out of Boston to the Tampa outpost of Ybor City.
Since “Shutter Island,” his self-professed homage to the Brontës and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Lehane has indulged in twin fascinations with history and noir. Following “The Given Day,” the first book in the Coughlin series, Lehane edited “Boston Noir,’’ the local installment of Akashic’s location-specific, mystery anthology series, as well as the second volume, due later this season. Last month, HarperCollins released Attica Locke’s “The Cutting Season,” a novel praised for its engagement with the past, as the inaugural title in its Dennis Lehane Books imprint.
Like its predecessor, “Live by Night” is a faithful and elegiac recreation of a distant place and time. A swanky Boston party is attended by “stern men with muttonchop sideburns and wizened matrons with skirts the shape of church bells,” the wharf populated by “[l]ongshoremen, stevedores, and teamsters [who] stood at their pilings, smoking in the bright cold” and throwing rocks at seagulls.
Upon his arrival in Tampa, Joe is greeted by “the ships in port and the high cranes” and smells “salt and oil slicks and low tide.” Lehane is equally precise when it comes to the ins and outs of liquor distribution during the Prohibition years. He drowns the reader in welcome details, from the steel barrels ordered to replace the oak ones shot up in a raid to the proper body crevice in which to hide a prison shank.
The noir touches are equally delightful. Joe roams through joints, shotgun shacks, speaks, and hideouts. When enemy combatants are sprayed with machine gun fire, they do “the bone yard foxtrot, like they were having terrible coughing fits while running across hot coals.” In a literary landscape pocked with clumsy Raymond Chandler hopefuls, Lehane has a real knack for using gangster slang with ease and grace.
In writing about the mob, Lehane has allowed himself to write about casual racism, something that lurks within the collective unconscious of everyone whose forbearers passed through Ellis Island. His characters routinely ascribe offensive appellations to members of different, equally impoverished ethnic groups with whom they are thrust in unforgiving circumstances. While he often delights in playing amateur socialist, detailing who feels superior to whom, Lehane takes pains to let us know Joe is one enlightened gangster. In one scene, Joe argues with a Cuban who tells him he, like all Americans, is arrogant. “According to the papers I’ve been reading, you’re also lazy, quick to anger, incapable of saving money, and childish,” Joe retorts. “I think assumptions about an entire country or an entire people are pretty . . . stupid in general.” Although gangster sectarianism has been common knowledge since at least the 1990 debut of “Goodfellas,” Lehane’s decision to endow Joe with anachronistic racial politics is acceptable, if somewhat pandering.
Although his protagonist’s morals are modern, Lehane’s form isn’t. “Live by Night” disregards nearly every post-“Godfather’’ advance in the gangster narrative. Joe, you see, is a ruminative gangster, one who struggles mightily against the Catholic morals imposed on him in his youth. Power fascinates him; polite society bores him to tears; and a murder can send him into an existential reverie. His father labels him a “wayward romantic,” and Joe himself spends countless paragraphs dithering over the difference between a gangster and an outlaw. This philosophizing is neither absurdly funny like that of the cop killer in Jean-Luc Goddard’s “Breathless,” nor horrifying like that of the crooked jewelry salesmen in Clancy Martin’s “How To Sell.” For all Lehane’s earnestness, Martin Scorsese may as well never have been born. By the end of the book, the reader gets the impression Lehane wants to go all the way back to the simplicity of “The Godfather,” before all this pesky post-modernism got in the way.
Lehane’s fondness for the past becomes truly problematic when “Live by Night” boils over into the didacticism of the pre-war American social novel. Joe’s father gives him his watch for Joe to bargain in exchange for his life, a gift which occasions countless ham-handed treatises on life, death, time, patrimony, and honor. Lehane feels compelled to beat the symbolism of this watch into the reader’s head until she is doing the boneyard foxtrot, or at least left with the sense she is reading a reductive self-help manual.
The novel’s flaws converge during a stunningly embarrassing scene in which Joe meets a character named Turner John, a wise yet humble bootlegger and self-described “champeen in the snoring.” Although Joe’s been sent to put a hit on him, instead Turner John tugs at his heart strings with a soliloquy written in dialect: “I had me a fine daddy. Only beat me hard when I had it coming and never when he’d taken to drink,” he says. “You want my money, Mr. Coughlin? Well then you best set to working with me and my boys on the mash and helping us work our farm, till the soil, rotate the crops, milk the cows. You follow?” Does Joe kill Turner John or make his father proud? You decide.
The failings of “Live by Night” are largely overshadowed by its absorbing virtues. Those that aren’t will be surely be glossed over in its next incarnation — Leonardo DiCaprio has already bought the film rights.Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this book review incorrectly described the race of the character Turner John. He is white.