Jay Connor's Reviews > Live by Night

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
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Oct 14, 12

Read in October, 2012

An amazing noir work with a pitch perfect eye and ear for Jazz Age and Depression ambience, yet somehow frustratingly inert at its very core, perhaps because at times Lehane uses a ladle to dispense these details rather than a narrative-advancing baster.

A fellow reviewer likened Lehane to a car collector polishing a vintage Pierce Arrow every weekend but never taking it out on the road. Lehane has assembled all of the exquisite aspects of life of a bygone era without fully bringing it to life. I think this is due to his hanging the central propulsion on a crippled soul -- Emma Gould -- rather than the wonderfully crafted, Joe Coughlin. We're told Emma 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.

The five star crossed with two star ambivalence I'm showing centers around the irony that Lahane's eloquence is at its strongest when either talking about Gould -- here at the end of the book: "she looked like a beautiful woman whose vices had failed to love her back" -- or quoting her -- "We're not fairy tale people in a book about true love .... We live by night and dance fast." All the while, the woman who is Joe's true soul mate, Graciela, a Cuban beauty, is given few soaring lines of dialogue and descriptions of her are more akin to the True Romance genre: when Joe spots Graciela before he even gets off the train, her body is 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." Come on, Fabio.

The greatest strength of "Live by Night" comes from its sweeping sense of place: from Boston speakeasies, to a harrowing prison where Joe is stabbed with a potato peeler ("It sounded like fish parts sucked into a drain") to the Latin Quarter of Tampa and on to the tobacco farms of pre-revolutionary Cuba. But it is Ybor City, Tampa's latin-mulatto sensual bastion of prohibition distilleries and prostitution that holds the center of "Live By Night." A lot happens in Ybor beyond Joe and Graciela "making love as if it were an addiction." 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; looses a gambling empire to a teenaged holy-roller, and eventually struggles to defend his own position within the mob. Learning of the tunnels and the history of Ybor is more than worth the price of admission.

"Live by Night" is Lehane's second historical crime novel. Though there are many of the same characters from his first, "The Given Day," there is no need to read in sequence. "Live by Night" stands on its own, just short of perfect.
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