Live by Night
Joe Coughlin’s story begins in 1926 Boston, where Prohibition has ushered in a violent era of gangsters and crime in a burgeoning bootlegging network. At twenty, Joe imagines himself cut from the same cloth as the criminals who take what they want at gunpoint, oblivious to the damage in their wake. The son of Thomas Coughlin, Deputy Superintendent of the Boston PD, Joe is an intentional thorn in his powerful, morally upright father’s side, plying his low-profile criminal skills robbing poker games around the fringes of mob territory. When Joe takes a liking to Emma Gould, bootleg gangster Alfred White’s particular arm candy of the moment, Coughlin’s hubris results in public humiliation for Coughlin, Sr. and prison time for Junior. Emma’s fate is unknown.
Joe Coughlin runs straight into White’s closed fist with his blatant seduction of the coolly seductive Emma, even though the consequences of his fatal attraction end in hard time. The prison years connect the hardest punch in Lehane’s beautifully-crafted novel of idealism, ambition and tragedy between father and son, man and woman and the nature of revenge, as life gets particularly primitive for Joe in prison. There life is cheap, decisions critical and partnerships serious, if deeply flawed by the criminal mentality. Release brings new endeavors, including the death knell of a long-simmering resentment against Alfred White and his organization. Joe’s links to the Italian mob, albeit purchased at a daunting price, provide the opportunity to establish himself as a man to be reckoned with and involvement in a political cause in the marriage of criminal enterprise and fearless Cuban patriots.
Despite a natural flair for capturing period and place with impressive detail, from the rhythms of language to the attitude of Boston’s establishment versus the gangsters who thrive on Prohibition and the city’s ethnic eccentricities, the real heart of Lehane’s novel is in the relationship of his protagonist to the important figures in his life. Most touching is the incendiary relationship between Thomas Coughlin and his son. Thomas is the epitome of power and moral arrogance, Joe privy to his father’s darkest secrets. Thomas aches to repair the damage of the past as he leaves Joe to survive on his own resources behind prison bars.
Joe’s natural hubris and youthful ambition lends insight to his foolish pursuit of Emma Gould. His association with the Italian mob and the gang culture in prison mold him into a survivor with the heart of an idealist, though burning with revenge, less obvious the carefully cultivated cynicism indicating a man in search of a purpose. His eventual appreciation of true love lends context to the maturing Joe Coughlin, quietly conscious of the wisdom gleaned from experience. Caught up in the glitter and tough-guy glamour of gangster life in Miami, Joe is tested in the most grueling environment, later encountering the mind-altering fusion of ambition and political passion. When real love hits, it comes hard and fast but demands a level of maturity not available to young Joe.
Lehane’s inimitable style defines this protagonist from the start, action accelerating with the force of a boxer’s punch, lessons bitter and deeply etched. As always, Lehane makes this place and these characters uniquely his own: complicated, colorful and flawed, drawn to the subtle political power of Boston, the showy environs of Miami and Cuba, thirst slaked by the bloody ambitions of crooks and the passionate ideals of Cuban patriots. Lehane leaves us richer for the experience, touched in unexpected ways and more mindful of the world we inhabit: “Violence procreates...what you put out into the world will always come back for you.”