Livee By Night is Irish American novelist Dennis Lehane's atmospheric follow up to The Given Day and it's unquestionably his finest achievement. A tale of love and revenge in the Prohibition era, every page leaps to life with all the grit and glamour of the Jazz Age. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the bestselling author of Moonlight Mile and Gone, Baby Gone about the hard living gangsters that populate his most accomplished work to date.
Every generation Irish America throws up a few authors who seem to tell the story of the nation through the dramas they create. Unarguably Dennis Lehane, 47, has become one of those writers.
Born in the hardscrabble and heavily Irish Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, he inherited tales of the Irish in America from his family and friends before he even knew what a gift they were.
In Live By Night, Lehane's first new novel since 2010's Moonlight Mile, he has set about crafting the finest novel of his career to date set in the Prohibition era in both Boston and Florida. This is an epic story of Irish mobsters, petty criminals and women so alluring that men are willing to die for them.
It's a truly great read in other words, and you can tell on every page how much this atmospheric tale actually means to the writer. Lehane leaves nothing out, he's put his heart and soul into this noir-ish drama, and you can bet that Hollywood is already angling for the screenplay.
This is the richest gangster story Lehane has ever written and it's crying out for a film treatment (Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio are already reportedly in talks to direct and produce).
“When I started this book I only knew two things,” Lehane tells the Irish Voice. “I knew that it was going to begin in Boston, the middle would be set in Tampa and that it would end in Havana, Cuba. That was it.
“The characters grew organically from the story which is a wonderful way to write it. I don't think I've ever enjoyed writing a book as much as this.”
Live By Night begins in 1926, when bootleg distillers and speakeasies are at their height and gangsters are making fortunes from the puritanical crackdown on booze. Lehane introduces us to Joe Coughlin, the bad seed son of one of Boston's best police officers. Joe has gone to the bad, as they say, ending up on the payroll of one of the city's toughest hoods.
But fate crosses his path in the person of Emma Gould and the affair puts him on the hit list of Albert White, the man who rubs out his old crime boss. The entanglement lands Joe in prison where he falls under the wing of Maso Pescatore, who sends him down to Florida to run his bootlegging operation when he's released.
There's more, much more to this epic story. Joe sets up operation in Tampa and before long he's a kingpin in the state's underworld.
But what Lehane is really interested in is the shadow history of the American century, the underworld economy and its seedy denizens that are as much a part of the history and success of Irish America as are the celebrated figureheads we commemorate to this day. No daylight with darkness, after all, no saints without sinners.
“A gangster is somebody who says, ‘I’m going to be part of a society, it’s just going to be criminal,’” Lehane explains.
That's different to an outlaw, who rejects society entirely. Lehane is interested in gangsters, the men who live by night, he's interested in their reality and what they have meant to the history of this nation. He has judgments to make about them too, but he won't look away from the good or the bad in them.
This may be Lehane's most Irish book to date because it has at its core a recognizably tense, awkward and explosive relationship between gangster Joe and his stoic hero cop father. It's the stuff of classic Irish drama and Lehane knows it.
“What connects The Given Day to this book and the follow up that I'm writing now is that they seem to be thematically all about fathers and sons. This is about a guy, Joe, who grows up in the shadow of his father and is sick of it. It's something he's trying to reconcile through the entire book although he doesn't know it.”
Lehane didn't look to his own family for inspiration for a good reason -- he liked his own dad.
“I like to think I had a wonderful relationship with my own father. It's a relationship that's quite strange by its very nature, fathers and sons,” he offers.
“You are in some ways the mirror of your father, but you're not. In some ways you're the replacement for the father too. You live in his shadow but you do not.
“Even a good father son relationship lives in a kind of constant tension. I'm physically turning into my father and I think that was very much on my mind as I was writing the book.”
In Live By Night we see that Joe is constantly thinking of how he looks in his father’s eyes. Even thousands of miles away and years apart, he wonders. He has a father who loves him but has a very odd way of showing it.
“The journey of the book is the one of Joe stepping into himself. He leaves the world that he has known behind. In that respect it's very much a coming of age story,” Lehane says.
“But he also begins to leave his soul behind too. And that becomes the big question at the latter end of the book -- can you possibly ever retain your soul in this business he's in?
“He's a gangster. Just because he rescues a prostitute or two doesn't mean he doesn't profit from prostitution. That question goes deeper into the next book (which Lehane is currently writing) which is very much a journey into darkness.”
There are certain places in the book that Joe goes to that Lehane went to in his twenties as a pasty Irish kid from Boston, he says.
“I ended up in Florida, as he does. Joe sees an entirely other world open up to him and that's exactly what happened to me,” says Lehane.
“If you grow up in a very insular society as I did in Boston and you step out of it it's an eye opener. I didn't realize that everyone doesn't look pasty and pale. I hadn’t heard a Latin beat. It changed me.”
That personal connection makes the fictional one come to life. Although throughout his career Lehane has focused on Irish Americans, and the darker chapters of our history here, he has never received criticism for showing us up. Has he ever experienced pushback?
“I've given that a lot of thought. I think the reason I haven't is that I show warts and all. I don't just show the warts or I'd never hear the end of it,” he says.
“I also show why it's fun. I show what a block party in a working class neighborhood looks like. I show how wonderful it is to be in a pub with your friends. I'm giving you the real thing.
“The Irish don't forgive you if you’re a carpet bagger or a tourist, but if you're an insider and you show the way it really is that's okay. If that's what you do then I find the pushback is minimal.”
Live By Night succeeds because it shows us the unbridled exuberance of a country coming into its own. And it's that great melting depicted at the absolute surfeit of that moment, from 1900 to the fifties where everyone saw the yield of that exchange.
It was the time of the American cities. The great cities built by immigrants. Lehane wants to tell its secret histories and he does it like no other writer.