From Beans to Mangos
“We live by night and dance fast so the grass can’t grow under our feet. That’s our creed.”
The problem with superlative work by any type of artist is that anything that comes after it is measured against it and usually found wanting. I’m still waiting for the Coens to make another Fargo, but at least Orson Welles is finally free from the millstone of Citizen Kane.
Some authors, after having scaled a sheer cliff to a critical and commercial success, suddenly acquire a terrible fear of heights. (The Harper Lee phenomenon?) It has to be a bit unnerving to suspect that you may have already written the book that all of the others will be measured against, but veteran climbers are always looking toward higher peaks and good writers are probably not all that different.
Still, I wonder if Shirley Jackson ever snapped at some unsuspecting fan, “Dammit, The Lottery isn’t the only thing I ever wrote!”
Would the rifle have beckoned so fatally to Hemingway if A Farewell to Arms had just been published? Would the tinfoil promise of Hollywood have seemed so alluring to Faulkner if Light In August was only in a rough draft status? Would Scott Fitzgerald have saved on his liquor bill if he had saved The Great Gatsby for later rather than sooner? Who knows.
Dennis Lehane was up against a formidable obstacle when I picked up my copy of Live By Night, a new novel that continues the bullet-riddled saga of the Coughlin clan of Boston that the author began in The Given Day. It was, however, strictly of Mr. Lehane’s own doing because the obstacle was my lasting admiration for the first book, one that I automatically recommend, along with The Killer Angels and The Sisters Brothers, to someone who wants “a really good read.”
Live By Night was off to a hopeful start. The title reminded me of Nicholas Ray’s smart little noir thriller with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The new book opened in Boston. Boston is my favorite city even though I haven’t been to too many cities what with my thing about how many bolts hold the wings onto planes. (I’m still sure that I like it better than I’d like Paris or Detroit.) But the sequel didn’t stay in Boston very long. I detected storm clouds on my horizon of expectations. They amassed and darkened.
While The Given Day had an expansive — even epic — sweep to it, Live By Night is an episodic and stylistically uneven crime and redemption-of-sorts story revolving around the inevitable problems when a gangster is cursed with a conscience. Lehane seamlessly incorporated many incidents in Boston’s tumultuous history into the first book and only drops a few familiar names (Sacco and Vanzetti come to mind) into the sequel. The ploy only reminded me of how memorable the first book really was.
Personally, I find fictional characters with functioning consciences to be tedious bores. Mr. Lehane, to his great credit, does not cast Joe Coughlin into a pit of misbegotten nobility, even if he isn’t the easiest guy to get a fix upon. Joe is the youngest son of Thomas Coughlin, the Boston police captain, whose checked career formed the centerpiece of the story of The Given Day. Tom brought a whole new dimension to the concept of tough love fatherhood — blacker and bluer, all in the name of love. The old man only stoked the flames of rebellion. Young Joe jettisoned an education to become a henchman for Albert King, a ruthless kingpin of crime in Boston.
Joe makes a huge career mistake by falling hard for Albert’s girl, the enticingly inscrutable Emma Gould. He clings desperately to the hope that Emma hasn’t been killed after the car in which she is riding plunges into the sea and her body is not recovered from the wreck. As they tend to do, the years pass and Joe finally resigns himself to the loss, although the reader might be tempted to conclude that the poor guy has just never read a mystery.
After serving hard time in prison for a bank robbery gone suspiciously sour, Joe relocates to Tampa, Florida to repair some potholes in the mob’s booze highway up the east coast. He expands into other nefarious enterprises, but still manages to cling to a touching naivety about the destructive impact his chosen line of work has on the people he cares about. The premise that evil only begets more evil might be fairly obvious to most people, but Joe’s quandary provides the book’s central, if slightly unoriginal, theme.
The elegantly smooth prose of The Given Day here is supplanted by an obvious effort to pay homage to the Raymond Chandler/James M. Cain school of rapier-sharp dialog. Too often, however, the banter in Live By Night smacks more of Warner Brothers than of Chandler. The catchy talk conceit is one that should be used sparingly in anything except books about a knockout blond with ice in her veins and murder on her mind. Lehane tends to ladle it on as if his characters were auditioning for Howard Hawks.
Some of the descriptive passages seem a touch overbaked, too. “His teeth were grey and slanted, several tipping back into his mouth like old headstones in a flooded graveyard.” I thought that Mr. Lehane had a written a wonderfully evocative simile until he felt compelled to add the part about the flooded graveyard and capsized the whole thing.
I doubt if my guarded opinion is going to drive Dennis Lehane to paroxysms of despair and I sincerely hope that Live By Night is another big success for him; that it finds a secure perch on the Times’ Best Seller list; that Eastwood or Scorcese opt it for the movies. It deserves its success because of all that it is: Fiercely entertaining, often exciting, and verdantly atmospheric.
If The Given Day remains Mr. Lehane’s triumphant flag on a mountain peak, he makes it beyond the snow line in his new novel. That’s further than a lot of climbers ever get.
Live By Night will be published by HarperCollins in October.
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