A short list of mishaps that befall characters in Live by Night, Dennis Lehane’s new novel: stabbed with a potato peeler (“It sounded like fish parts sucked into a drain”); stabbed in the Adam’s apple; shot in the face (“the exit hole splattered pink all over the ferns”); tied to the hood of a car; devoured by alligators. A woman commits suicide by cutting off her genitals and slashing her own windpipe. How can a book packed with macabre acts of violence possibly be dull? Live by Night offers an excellent opportunity to contemplate this question.
The saga begins in 1926, when 19-year-old Joe Coughlin, self-described “outlaw” son of a Boston police honcho, makes the mistake of robbing a gangster’s poker game. Then he makes a second mistake: He falls in love with the gangster’s moll. Emma Gould has eyes “pale as very cold gin” behind which lie “something coiled and caged.” She is so obviously bad news that it comes as no surprise to the reader when she promptly betrays Joe and breaks his heart. Regrettably, it takes Joe several hundred pages to wise up; this makes him seem not so much passionate as thick.
Following Emma’s double-cross, Joe goes to prison, where he is adopted by an avuncular mafia boss who recruits him as a foot soldier. The prison action is protracted and jerky, incorporating mob schemes, random attacks on Joe in the shower and the irrelevant vintage padding that Lehane can’t seem to resist. It’s awesome that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, but does it really matter to a kid in the slammer where men are (literally) threatening to eat his eyeballs? In 1929, after Joe’s release, when the mob sends him south to Tampa to oversee their bootlegging operations, you think that at last the novel will take flight.
Enter Graciela, a Cuban beauty, whom Joe spots before he even gets off the train, her body moving under her dress “like something outlawed that was hoping to slip out of town before the Puritans got word. Paradise, Joe thought, is dusky and lush and covers limbs that move like water.” Graciela brings out the purple in Lehane’s prose, and it’s not a becoming color.
In addition to lovemaking with Graciela (“something bordering on addiction”), a lot happens down in Tampa. Joe robs a 10,000-ton naval transport to arm Cuban revolutionaries; builds distilleries; drinks rum; goes to war with the Ku Klux Klan; negotiates with backwoods moonshiners; and eventually struggles to defend his own position within the mob.
It all should be so much more exciting than it is, but Lehane weighs it down with ponderous details, like one very long paragraph devoted to what a peripheral character is wearing — from the number of buttons on his chalk-striped, champagne-colored suit to the lacing on his black-and-white spectator shoes. It’s as if the writer went to the library to research 1929 menswear and doesn’t want the material to go to waste. He takes more care describing the architectural details — the cedar closets, minarets and 100-odd windows — of Plant’s Palace, a legendary Tampa hotel, than he does in lashing together his narrative, which meanders from shootout to stabbing to grisly suicide. When an alligator feeding frenzy doesn’t grab your attention, something has gone seriously wrong with a plot.
In his taut, twisty novels set in the modern era, like the magisterial Mystic River, Lehane burrows into the dark psyches of his characters without stopping to show how they lace up their shoes. This is Lehane’s second historical crime novel, after 2008’s The Given Day. That book featured a few of the same characters, and all of the same shortcomings. Like the vintage car collector who endlessly waxes his prized Packard but won’t take it on the road, Lehane lovingly amasses the perfect period details but can’t breathe life into this novel.