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Onyx reviews: Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Danny Coughlin, the protagonist of Dennis Lehane's first historic novel, The Given Day, was a perfect son to Captain Thomas Coughlin of the Boston Police Department. He followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a cop. The Given Day ended with the police strike of 1919, which decimated the department.

Six years later, the country is in the midst of Prohibition. Danny's younger brother, Joe, now nineteen, is embarking on his own path in life—one that is diametrically opposed to the family profession. He's young, brash, and ambitious, a small-time gangster who fears little, and embraces life to the fullest. In short, he's an accident waiting to happen.

His life changes the night he and his cohorts "accidentally" stick up a speakeasy belonging to mobster Albert White. They had no idea going in who owned the place. Joe is smart enough to not make a bad situation worse, but dumb enough to allow himself to be smitten by the saucy waitress attending to the gamblers in the speakeasy's back room. He pursues her like a stalker and embarks on a torrid love affair that is made all the more ill advised by the fact that Emma Gould is also seeing Albert White. 

His brief time with Emma is transforming. He wants to be an outlaw instead of a gangster, a man outside of the law instead of at odds with it. He grows reckless, eager to impress her. She is both his inspiration and his downfall. In the book's opening pages, a flash-forward set several years in the future shows Joe musing that he was set on the trajectory that brought him to his current situation (being fitted for a pair of cement galoshes) the night he met Emma. You never forget your first love, they say, and Joe spends years believing there will never be anyone like her. He's had his one great love in life.

His missteps sometimes work out in his favor—he starts working for Albert White after the botched robbery—but he's heading for a fall. Someone sets him up and the police are waiting when he embarks on an unauthorized robbery. Several cops end up dead that night, all of them through friendly fire or stupidity, but that doesn't mitigate in Joe's favor. If he had half a brain, he would have taken the money and run, but he goes back for Emma. He's recognized and arrested. His father, in a moment of rage and exasperation at his son's foolishness, lets several cops, incensed at the deaths of their brethren, beat him to within an inch of his life. 

During his stint in prison, he meets White's main rival, Maso Pescatore, and ends up doing favors for the man. Maso grows to respect him and, after he is released, Maso sends him to Tampa to take over their bootlegging interests there. Once he adapts to the repressive climate of the Florida gulf coast—an omnipresent part of the narrative—Joe rises to the occasion. In short order he eliminates the local competition and forges valuable alliances with a group of Cuban expatriates interested in funding a revolution back home. Joe's first big caper is the theft of guns and munitions from a US Navy transport ship. He still pines for Emma Gould, but his interest is piqued by the exotic Graciela Corrales. 

The novel starts off with the jaunty feel of a noir crime novel, with cutting language and pithy observations, but Lehane abandons this irreverent tone after Joe moves to Florida, perhaps as a way of signifying his transformation from gangster to outlaw.

The book spans the years between 1926 and the end of Prohibition in 1933, and a little beyond. It's a vital time for gangsters and outlaws, all of whom want a piece of the valuable bootlegging action. Like his brother Danny, Joe is colorblind. The Irish and Italians aren't natural allies, but he works well with Pescatore. In Florida, he finds a new dimension to the melting pot. The light-skinned Spaniards hate their darker-skinned brethren, but both hate the Cubans (and there's a color-based caste system among them, too), and the Puerto Ricans are at the bottom of the ethnic totem pole. Joe's lack of prejudices puts him at odds with the KKK, which has members in high places. However, because the white populace wants what Joe produces—high quality rum—they tolerate his operation, so long as it's outside of Tampa proper.  

Joe (only his father calls him Joseph) builds an empire as the self-proclaimed Prince of Ybor City. At heart, he remains a simple—if somewhat philosophical—man. He believes that everyone in the world is scared of the unknown, which drives them to greed. If this life is all there is, people try to make the best of it by acquiring big houses, big cars, big everything. He becomes wealthy, but he doesn't understand what rich people do with their spare time beyond eat, drink and dance.

Ordinary people, who live in the daylight hours, play by society's rules. Joe and his gang live by night and play by their own rules. However, as Joe comes to learn, they don't really have many rules. He disgusts himself by the levels to which he's willing to stoop to achieve his goals. He still likes to think of himself as an outlaw, but deep down he knows he's just a gangster. Men have ended up dead for no other reason than that Joe was born and their lives intersected. He has several visions of a tan panther, but its significance is unclear. Is it the lawless side of him flexing its muscles, or does it represent his inevitable fate? 

He eases his conscience by using the proceeds of his bad deeds to do good. Once a man rises to such lofty heights, though, the only questions that remain are when he will fall and how far. As a prince of gangsters with a monopoly on the entire gulf coast from Tampa to Louisiana, it is inevitable that others will come gunning for him. The opening flash-forward points in one direction, but sometimes death isn't the worst outcome. Even when he's prepared to step away from his life of crime and enjoy a normal life with his family, his past sins come back to haunt him.

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