- - Friday, October 26, 2012

By Dennis Lehane
Morrow, $27.99, 416 pages

The first page of “Live by Night” hooks you with a paragraph written in the quintessentially unemotional style of Dennis Lehane, an author who takes no prisoners.

“On a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”

This is a vivid and coldblooded summary of the life of a modern American outlaw. It is set in the years of Prohibition and the Great Depression, and it adds up to 400 pages of brutality and blood woven into readability by the writing skill of the author, because Joe Coughlin is very good at being bad.

In less expert hands, this would be one more book about a Boston gangster. From Mr. Lehane it is a classic take on the underworld and how to survive in it. Coughlin differs in one respect from other thugs in that he resents being described as a gangster. He considers himself an outlaw, which in his view is an elevated species. He doesn’t care about the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake, which includes his father and a police captain who, at one point, is driven to order that his son should be beaten almost to death. The real irony of Coughlin’s life is his passion for Emma, for whom he challenges a crime boss as tough as he is. Emma turns out to be more chilling than Coughlin. He will do anything for her, and she will do anything to him.

Coughlin’s philosophy is guided by the night. “‘You live by day, you play by their rules, he muses. ‘We live by night and play by ours. We don’t really have any rules.’”

He gets himself an early release from jail through the good offices of Maso Pescatore, a “Godfather” type who perhaps recognizes in Coughlin his own capacity for the relentless and the ruthless.

Operating in a lopsided partnership with the older man, Coughlin flies high as a bootlegger and a rumrunner, with a string of corpses to mark his path. He prides himself on being an outlaw until he realizes that what he has become is a powerful gangster notorious throughout Florida. But that takes a while. He views as a highlight of his career the night that he and his henchman, Dion, blow up a transport ship in a rum-smuggling deal. As the ship explodes, Coughlin reflects, “This was why we became outlaws. To live moments the insurance men, the truck drivers and lawyers would never know.”

“How many men as they stepped into the night country of their final hour could take one last look over their shoulder and say I once sabotaged a ten thousand ton transport ship?”

Of course, he also reminds himself, “We will probably die young.” But that is one of the risks he accepts. And there are other risks, like Albert White, the gangster who also loved Emma Gould, who they both think is dead.

White has never forgiven Coughlin, and he waits patiently for his revenge during the halcyon years in which Coughlin even takes on the Ku Klux Klan, although not necessarily for racial reasons. The Klan’s capacity for murder is taking a bite from Coughlin’s profits as Klan victims die and flee. The fact that the local chief of the Klan is related to Figgis, the Tampa police chief, impels Coughlin to use a dangerous method of enforcement. He blackmails Figgis with pornographic photographs of the man’s beautiful daughter, and it proves a major mistake even for Coughlin.

Things get worse when his partner, Pescatore, wants to replace Coughlin in Florida with his own dimwitted son, and this is the opportunity that Albert White has been waiting for. That’s how Coughlin winds up in a tub of cement while White sneers.

If you think Coughlin wriggles out of that tub, you would, of course, be correct. Rescued by his loyal followers, even at the cost of their own lives, he emerges bloody but unbowed from another welter of bullets and death.

Mr. Lehane surpasses himself in a sardonic encounter between Coughlin and the eventually very-much-alive Emma, who greets him casually as he finds her sweeping up broken glass outside her brothel. She tells him the truth about their relationship, and it destroys any illusions he had left. Offering an offhand invitation to visit, Emma observes, “We live by night and dance fast so the grass doesn’t grow under our feet. That’s our creed.”

In the end, Coughlin realizes it is no longer his creed, and he moves toward a milder lifestyle that now includes his wife, Graciela, and a small son. He isn’t destroyed by the final tragedy that strikes him, but he no longer lives by night. An evolution masterfully rendered.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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