Monday, June 20, 2016

Live By Night

Dennis Lehane has written several books that I have liked--most recently The Drop which I reviewed in my blog a few weeks back.  Some of his early books are similarly good.  I can't actually remember the plot line from A Drink Before the War, but I recall that it was about race relations and I thought it was excellent.

So, I saw Live By Night at my local library book sale and scooped it up.  I see, now that I have finished it, that it was well received by many, that it is the second book of a three novel series about the character Joe Coughlin, and it has been made into a movie starring Ben Affleck which is scheduled to be released in 2017.

However, while I am a fan of Lehane, this book did not do it for me at all.  It was all I could to get through this and if Lehane wasn't an author that otherwise has not disappointed, I would have quit--something I very rarely do.  The man can write, but geez, there were so many nearly independent episodes in this book.  Also, with all the killing that Coughlin is part of and the many times he comes close to getting axed, it is difficult to believe that he could have evaded death himself.

What is it about? Well...

During prohibition, a gangster (Joe Coughlin) robs a speakeasy with two friends. In so doing he meets a woman, Emma, who one would think is central to the story--and in a way she is though she does not get much ink.  Joe is smitten by the woman, but sadly she is the moll of another gangster.  This other gangster is similarly smitten by Emma. This triangle is the backdrop to the entire tale during which we read about the relationship Joe has with his father--a police big shot; Joe's relationship with an accomplice who had double crossed Joe; Joe's experience with and subsequent business association with another inmate when they are both imprisoned;  and how Joe moves from Boston to take over Tampa bootlegging.   Also, Joe falls in love with another woman in Tampa and this is again an entire story in and of itself. Joe robs the US navy.   He deals with a police chief in Tampa whose daughter is a heroine addict turned preacher. He goes to Cuba.

Too much disconnected stories.  And oh, we find out early on that Emma is dead but anyone who has progressed beyond Dick and Jane knows she is still lurking somewhere and not just metaphorically.

Meanwhile throughout all this Joe is in position to get axed about ten times and ridicakulusly he escapes each time.  The way Joe extricates himself from Albert White's attempt to drown him would not even make a Superman comic.

Bottom line is I can't recommend this even though I typically like Lehane.   Maybe if I had read the first in the Couglin series before this one it would have made a difference.  I will be interested in the movie because my sense is that the screenplay will synthesize and weed out some stories and highlight some others. For example, I noticed that one of the actors listed as a main character in the movie plays only a small part at the end of the novel.  It appears as if he will be more central in the movie.

An interesting and underplayed dimension of this novel is that in the late 1920s and 30s, Joe's involved in an interracial relationship.  Even sixty years later this would have given both parties more grief than it does in the novel. I like it when authors attempt to dissolve the absurd stigma attached to interracial relationships, so that is a positive--but I did not think it was realistic given the prejudices of the era.

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