Life On The Dark Side

There is a moment in Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night in which the protagonist, Joe Coughlin—Joseph to his father, the man against whom Joe gauges himself all his life—realizes that he is not what he wants to be, what he always asserted himself to be.

“How many men have you killed?” Estaban asked.

“None,” Joe said.

“But you’re a gangster.”

Joe didn’t see the point in arguing the definition between gangster and outlaw because he wasn’t sure there was one anymore. “Not all gangsters kill people.”

“But you must be willing to.”

Joe nodded. “Just like you.”

“I’m a businessman. I provide a product people want. I kill no one.”

“You’re arming Cuban revolutionaries.”

“That’s a cause.”

“In which people will die.”

“There’s a difference,” Estaban said. “I kill for something.”

“What? A fucking ideal?” Joe said.


“And what Ideal is that, Estaban?”

“That no man should rule another’s life.”

“Funny,” Joe said, “outlaws kill for the same reason.”

Throughout the novel, Joe is teasing at distinctions.  He gets involved in crime to distinguish himself from his father and his older brothers.  He disobeys his boss in order to fulfill an image of himself as his own man.  He takes as lover his boss’s moll because she is someone he wants more than he ever wanted anything before and cannot see why he should not risk all in order to be who he wants to be.

It costs him and in the end he loses—constantly and dearly—even as he achieves exactly that goal, to be himself.

Live By Night may be a turning point for Lehane, who has been consistently raising the bar in his own work by engaging his worlds and his characters at a level beyond the expectations of noir.

Joe Coughlin considers himself an outlaw.  Not a gangster.  For him, there is a fine by significant difference.  While both engage similar tactics, the reasons are different, and in his own way Joe seems to think there is a moral distinction.  The outlaw sets his own rules, but reserves the right—indeed, believes in the necessity—of setting limits on what he will and will not do in pursuit of his goals.  He will not kill indiscriminately.

This alone sets him at odds with his putative superiors.  As far as Joe is concerned, if he achieves the same thing without indulging in what he believes to be senseless violence, why should anyone be disappointed.

Sometimes this works out well and everyone is happy.  Other times, it runs afoul a deeper motivation on the part of the people with whom he is in league.

Set during Prohibition, Lehane gives us a rich view of the borderline landscapes where the illicit and licit blur into each other.  In Joe’s own view, he and his “live by night,” where the rules are murkier, the motives different, the standards other than for those who live in the day.  Day and Night are almost metaphysical concepts.  Similarities abound, but in many ways superficial.

Joe begins in Boston, the son of a prominent man in the police department who despairs of his youngest boy, even while he loves him.  The Oedipal tangles binding them in an impossible relationship are revealed but only as foundational constructs.  Nothing can be resolved between them.  Life has taken them in such directions that they cannot accommodate each other.

And yet their lives intersect tragically when Joe is sent to prison and falls into the orbit of one of the most powerful mob bosses on the east coast.  Joe plays the situation masterfully, but the game is ultimately rigged and the house claims it tonnage of flesh over the course of a career that sees Joe rise to power in Florida, becoming the chief rum runner in the Gulf.

What sets this story above the standard-issue gangster novel is Lehane’s insistence on a moral center that, flawed as it is, possesses real force for Joe and takes him in directions that often irritate him because it would be simpler, easier to just go along with the power structure.  In this, Joe becomes iconic—a moral man (such as he is) caught within a broken system.

As well, Lehane’s wordcraft—his art, his dextrous use of image—puts him on par with Chandler and Cain, Ross McDonald and Hammet.  There is a flavor of Scott Fitzgerald in his evocations, in the in-built tragedy, in the almost Shakespearean psychologies at play.  Even the minor, bit players feel fully fleshed and viscerally authentic.

And the passion is narcotic.  Joe loves two women in the course of the novel and Lehane makes it real.  Through this as much as anything else he shows us the costs of being an outlaw, of refusing the safer trajectories of life.  Joe makes his choices—because he can and also because he can’t not—and accepts the risks.

A superior read.

Persistent Ghosts

Recently I read two novels that, after some thought, work as examples of effective and ineffective sequels.  I confess up front I’m stretching things to make a point here and I in no way recommend a similar reading strategy.  I’m indulging myself in this in order to explain something.

I haven’t read Philip Roth since Portnoy’s Complaint came out in paperback.  Yes, I read it that long ago and, yes, I was probably far too young for it.  My impression of it at the time is hard to recapture, but it left me kind of stunned.  For one, I hadn’t encountered that kind of writing before (not even in some of the porn magazines I’d snuck into the house) and to see it in something on any best seller list was a shock to my 13-year-old psyche.  For another, the self-conscious analysis of an adolescent “matter in transition” surprised me.  I’m not sure it helped or just made me feel that the malaise in which I found myself then (and for a few years to come) was inevitable, which was depressing.

For whatever reason, I never went back to Roth.  From time to time I’ve thought that might have been a mistake.  He’s a Big Deal and maybe I’ve missed something.

So a month or so back I found a couple of used copies of his later novels, picked them up, and the first one I read was Exit Ghost.  For those who’ve kept up, of course, this is one of the ending books in his ongoing Zuckerman series.  From this novel, I gather Zuckerman is a kind of alter-ego for Roth himself.  A famous and successful writer (they aren’t always the same thing) moving through the travails of his fame and success, observing with his writer’s eye the changing landscapes around him.

In this one, Zuckerman has been living as an isolate in the country for several years, especially after prostate surgery which has left him both incontinent and impotent.  He returns to New York on the promise of a new procedure that may at least address his incontinence.  Roth vividly allows the reader to feel the misery of Zuckerman’s condition.  While in New York, Zuckerman meets a young couple who wish to leave (this is the aftermath year of 9/11) for some place Not New York, and offer to swap their apartment for his cabin for a year.

Zuckerman falls headlong into lust for the wife.

He begins working on a fictionalized treatment of their potential liaison, cleverly counterpointing it with what actually happens, at least in their conversations, which he (fictionally) idealizes.  The fictional treatment makes her more self-possessed and himself cleverer.  While all this is going on, Zuckerman finds himself dealing with resurrected ghosts of his literary (and erotic) past and the fact that he no longer knows how to function in this New York after having been away so long.

The writing is beautiful.  There are sentences here superbly crafted, achingly fraught with meaning.  I can see why Philip Roth is considered so highly.

But there is, in the end, only one ghost present which is seeking exit.  Portnoy.  It seems he is still writing about the problems of wanting to get laid, not getting laid, and wishing ardently to not feel guilty about either condition.  Fifty plus years after my last Philip Roth novel, I find that the work is still, at least in part, about the same things.  At least, in this instance.

Portnoy, however, is rather pathetic as a ghost.  He doesn’t disturb much other than the memory of erections no longer possible.  He moves around in the ruins of what was once a vital life, trying to find a way of accepting things as they are, not quite succeeding, and changing nothing.

Tim Powers, however, gives us much more tangible—and dangerous—ghosts in his Hide Me Among The Graves, which is at least a thematic sequel to his The Stress of Her Regard.  As in the previous novel, Powers gives us vampires, but not of the usual sort.  Powers’ vampires are not half-rotted corpses rising, undead, from graves, former humans with a thirst for their living cousins’ blood and a desire to replicate themselves.  Rather, Powers gives us the Nephilim, the remnants of a race that once dominated the Earth before the rise of the oyxgen-breathing, fast-living creatures of a Cambrian eco-system with no place for silicate-based life.  For Powers, these holdovers are the Lamiae, and they feed on iron and love in a grotesque symbiosis, one byproduct of which is artistic brilliance.  Among their captive suitors are Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Coleridge.

With their attention comes madness and the destruction of all competitors for the obsessive love they seem to crave.  Long life, genius, and ultimately a kind of moral corruption that ends up justifying any destruction in the name of…

Well, continuation, really.  These are ghosts that seek actively to persist.

While they come from outside the psyché, they are profoundly dependent on it.  On the willingness of their human partners, on their devotion, their protection, really, and therefore, for Powers, everything comes down to a matter of will.

In The Stress of Her Regard, the artistic center is represented by Byron and Shelley.  In this new novel, that center is the Rossettis—Dante Gabriel and Christina, specifically, with Swindburne as a sort of fifth wheel who learns about the lamiae and very much wants their attention, pining for the brilliance that results from it.

And as in the previous novel, it is those on the sidelines who are instrumental in ending the possessions of the ghosts.

As in the Roth, sex is very much at the heart of the infection.  There is spiritual V.D. in the relations Powers depicts.  We all bring our ghosts along to bed with us, but in the case of the Nephilim these are ghosts with lingering, almost incurable consequences.  And yet, celibacy is no guarantor of health.  Those with whom one’s cousin sleeps could kill you just because.

The brilliance that is a symptom of their infection strikes one as kin to the apparent genius unlocked by syphilis, as in people like Nietzsche

Powers’ ghosts move amid ruins as well, in this case the ancient tumbledowns of a London burned by Boadicea, who is herself become one of the Nephilim.  The new London often seems not much more than an incipient ruin itself as the protagonists, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee—both collateral damage in their own ways of the bigger game being played among these ancient monsters—strive to defeat them so they can save their daughter and try to have something like a normal life in which simple love dominates.

In this, Powers shows us a place of solace, a resolution, a condition wherein the ghosts can quieten finally, and peace has a chance to succeed.  The ghosts are recognizably Outside and putting them back outside offers a chance to go on wholly according to one’s self will.

Roth, on the other hand, shows us someone whose ghosts are completely of his own contrivance who treats them as if they are (or should be) something Outside—that can be run from, hidden from, denied.  The failure to recognize them for what they are—ultimately failures of will—condemns Zuckerman to a sophisticated kind of adolescent denial of reality.  Success—however it is defined, no matter how modest—is impossible.

In this, curiously, there is one other similarity between the subtexts of the two works, and that is that genius can be a trap.  What we might sacrifice for it can cut us off from kinder choices, saner trajectories, blind us to certain obvious realities, and give us a justification to cause harm without acknowledging that its expression, too, is a matter of will.  Powers, of the two, shows us clearly that genius is no excuse for embracing monsters or giving our lives over to ghosts.  I’m not altogether sure Roth would accept that formulation.

Great Blunders, Great Wars

High school history provides us with the basics of World War I and does so by making it appear that something akin to an earthquake happened.  Archduke Ferdinand, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is assassinated in Sarajevo and a month later Germany invaded France, triggering a catastrophic series of treaty-obligated interventions by Russia, England, and so forth.  Simple.

Except, what?  Why would Germany do that because the heir to a throne not theirs is shot by a lone assassin in a city in a country allied with Austria?

The connective tissue was always missing.  Something (mumble mutter) to do with Serbia and Austria blaming them for the murder (by an independent terrorist!) and Russia insisting Austria leave Serbia alone, Germany insisting Russia leave Austria alone, France insisting Germany leave Russia alone, and England insisting everyone leave Belgium alone (Belgium? How did Belgium get into this…?), and suddenly you have the international equivalent of a schoolyard pile-on.

Many books have been written attempting to explain the complicated set of relations between the so-called Great Powers and how they all triggered each others’ worst responses in what amounted to a game of chicken.  But that high school myth persists, that WWI happened almost out of the blue.

Sean McMeekin has produced a worthy examination of the month between the fateful assassination and the opening of hostilities on August 4th, 1914.  In July 1914:  Countdown To War he takes pains to show how all this transpired.  It happened quickly, to be sure, as international interactions go, but it was not either unexpected or inevitable.  The major element, besides considerable attention to a chronology which he lays out with admirable clarity, included is what so often is left out of history courses—personality.

McMeekin’s portraits of the players—Kaiser Wilhelm II, his chancellor, Bethmann, the Austria foreign minister Berchtold, army chief of staff Conrad, Russia’s Sazanov, Tsar Nicholas II, Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey of Britain, and all the rest—open the curtains on how the fatal mix of personalities led to the catastrophe that reshaped Europe so much that in many ways we are still sorting through the rubble.

Starting with the ongoing hatred among the hawks in Austria toward Serbia.  Begin with that and the long history behind it and we begin to see that nothing was really a surprise other than the fact that it actually happened.  The first blunder was the connivance of the Austrians to obtain German backing for a punitive action against Serbia for sponsoring the assassination of the archduke—an archduke, by the way, who was unpopular in his own family and whose loss as a successor to the throne was something of a relief to the Emperor.  Begin with that and the next series of events—diplomatic wrangling, lying, obfuscation, and, above all, haste—makes sense.  Insane sense, but sense nevertheless.

And because McMeekin is dealing handily with the personalities of all these people, questions of reason, caution, experience, and the deliberative conservatism one might expect from old established states become moot as we watch them all jockeying for position to prove points, gain support, establish—or in the case of Austria, re-establish—reputations.

Reading this, one is put in mind of the rush to war in Iraq in 2003, under conditions wherein insufficient information, curtailment of debate, and a drive to do overrode all other considerations.  Hindsight is frustrating.

McMeekin’s concluding chapter, wherein he discusses responsibility and offers a variety of arguments over inevitabilities, is more than just a summation.  Rather it is a sobering analysis of the fragility of circumstance and the importance of character, which so many of us would like to pretend doesn’t matter.

Iain Banks Is Gone

I have nothing much to say that I didn’t already say.  He wrote some of my all-time favorite books.  I envied the scope and depth of his creations.  If I imagined what kind of work I wanted to write in my ideal world, Banks’ Culture  stories would be one of the examples.

He went much too soon.  He thought he’d have more time.  We thought so, too.

One of the pitfalls of science fiction is that we can read about all these wonderful places and times where things like this can be dealt with and the world is more at our command than it is, but when the book is finished and we close the cover, we still live here.  And here we lose people every day to things we know we should be able to beat.  Because we’ve seen that future, laid out for us by fine writers and great minds.

Some day.  Writers like Iain Banks showed us.  Some day.