“That’s what it took to stay on top in the rackets,” we’re told, “everyone had to know you’d long ago amputated your conscience.” And for awhile, the sentiment is believable. Almost. The thing is, Joe Coughlin, the protagonist in Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, is nothing if not conscientious. Maybe he doesn’t see the world through a completely legal lens, but he does see it, a virtue to which his counterparts cannot lay claim.
Joe is Irish and hails from Boston, a typical scenario for a gangster story, at least based on popular portrayal. His story begins and ends with his struggle to define himself, outlaw or gangster, “syndicate boss” or father. Joe is fairly certain of himself, seeing only an outlaw trajectory for his life, until he meets Emma Gould, whom he would, in later years, describe as “a beautiful woman whose vices had failed to love her back.” Emma is responsible, at least in part, for propelling Joe right out of his outlaw status and into true gangster territory. Through Emma, Joe finds himself swimming in an undercurrent of crime that reveals the harsh realities of rationalization.
Rage and its appeasement play a critical role in Joe’s ascension up the ladder of organized crime. His ability to commit crime feeds on it, requires it for sustenance, thus rendering Joe its captive. Despite this rage, though, and the crimes he commits in its name, Joe remains a sympathetic character. Readers will not find him to be a good guy, but they will not find him an all-encompassing bad guy either. During his prison stint, Maso Pescatore, a reputed crime boss, tells Joe, “Everything in a man’s life is about profit. Profit or succession.” Joe is a whiz at profit, organizing Ybor City and other outlying areas of Tampa with a no-nonsense approach to order and productivity. But given his tenuous relationship with his own father, the idea of succession permeates Joe’s existence, sometimes on a conscious level, sometimes not, and Joe uses the fundamental idea here (a kill-or-be-killed mentality) as the basis of his enterprise.
The undercurrent of religion in the novel cannot be ignored, and Joe struggles with how his idea of religion governs his actions. His is not the Catholocism that’s expected of him by those who don’t know his true profession. Neither is it the absolute rejection of a moral code as is assumed by those who do. Joe’s belief in God is a personal one, one that doesn’t depend on proselytizing evangelists or beads and rituals and crucifixes. In the few short years we get to know him, he decides that heaven, the only real heaven that we can ever attain, is here on Earth. Since this is to be the most perfect place, Joe seems to see it as his personal duty to maintain a functioning order by whatever means necessary, even means of questionable legality, and this belief becomes the religion to which he adheres.
Terminal Notes: The novel is nothing if not climactic, twisting and turning the plot as frequently as the allegiances between the gangsters. The inclusion of the Ku Klux Klan in Tampa seems somewhat arbitrary, but it does give the story more historical dimension. Lehane has created a character whom readers will neither wholly fear nor love. They will, however, combine the two. By the end of the novel, we may not agree with everything Joe has done, but we respect the person he’s decided he truly is.