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.