Live by Night: A Novel by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins, $16.99, 401 pages)
Well, I’ve walked two hundred miles, look me over / It’s the end of the chase and the moon is high / It won’t matter who loves who / You’ll love me or I’ll love you / When the moon comes falling / When the moon comes falling / When the moon comes falling from the sky…. Bob Dylan
Joe Caughlin, son of a Boston cop, is a bad guy with heart and a conscience. The complex creation of this man’s thoughts, feelings and actions is a true work of art.
The recent death of James Gondolfini might make this assertion seem cliché. The media coverage of his passing makes it appear as if this reviewer is the only person alive who’s never seen an episode of The Sopranos. So, that being said, the following commentary on Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night is based solely on the merits of the book with no bias toward the gangster genre.
One can look to the Book of Genesis for the age-old theme of male judgment being compromised by the affinity for a woman. From the opening paragraph of the book: “And it occurred to him (Joe) that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life — good or bad — had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”
Indeed, Joe is taken by Emma, and she takes him for what she can, eventually leading to a heist gone bad, a lifelong feud with rival Albert White, incarceration, and the subsequent fight for survival that sets into motion a rum-running dynasty in Tampa with its own set of decisions and moral dilemmas that lead to additional near-misses, relationships, and death — lots of it.
During Joe’s stint in prison, Lehane creates a magical telling of the love between a father and son. When Joe decides not to execute the daughter of Tampa police chief Irv Figgens, Lehane masterfully depicts the inner workings of Joe’s conscience. When Joe and Graciela fall in love, create a life, and conceive of a child, the longing for a connection to a world larger than self even in the midst of chaos becomes simplistically self-evident.
And, oh yes, there is Emma. The Emma’s of the world do haunt forever. She will have a say in the outcome of the story, you can be sure of that.
When Joe crosses the imagined boundary from outlaw to gangster, the reader gets a glimpse of the notion that morality exists even where evil is pervasive. There are lines of acceptability drawn in the deep recesses of everyone’s mind. When one chooses to live by the rules of night, the gray area of love, loyalty and human empathy are interpreted individually and on a moment-by-moment basis. Perhaps this is no different that those who accept convention and live by day. But, Joe cannot resist the urge to live in the realm of night, and he is simply too good a bad guy to conquer it.
Any person interested in the difference between a crime novel and literature need only to pick up Live by Night to learn the answer.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Live by Night was released as a trade paper book on May 14, 2013.
Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.