Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

“The word was out – choose a side or choose a headstone.”

It’s no surprise that I love the Prohibition Era. So when I saw that this book was hailed as one of the best noir novels of the past decade, I jumped aboard. What I found was a very interesting story underneath the trappings of an epic.

What that translates to is time jumps.

A lot of time jumps.

This is Joe’s story, a man trying to be an average Joe, but ends up dating the lover of a guy high up in the Mob. Thus begins the downhill spiral of Joe’s life, throwing us all the way from Boston to Florida to Cuba in a guise of revenge and ambition. It can mean a lot of telling and not showing. It can mean we see a life story condensed into four hundred pages. But most importantly, it can move the pace along at a break neck speed.

Besides the cliché, this story doesn’t adhere to such things. I came in expecting the usual action story about a gangster during the 20s. What I found was an “outlaw” doing his best not to kill or harm anybody. He tries to romanticize criminals, and I believe, to an extent, that’s what Lehane tried to do. He wanted to take away the gritty normality of noir novels. And while the violence did have a great impact when shown, I don’t believe it had enough.

Point being the ending.

It came out of nowhere. Even if I did expect it, I didn’t think it would happen, especially when there was only two pages left. But hey, sometimes we need a good character death to jolt our preconceptions. Unfortunately, Lehane ruined any emotional impact with the dialogue and epilogue.

First, as the bullets spray by we are bombarded not only with a gruesome death by whining conversation that’s supposed to be dramatic but a trope out of nowhere. It’s like when the hero clutches his dead wife while rain patters down from above. A great idea, but many times performed wrong.

So yes, the ending was one of the worst executed ones I’ve ever read. The epilogue was devoid of emotion. It had no impact. It served as a minor break, a small piece of breathing room before we closed the book for good. If Lehane had stretched it on for a tad bit, I felt it could’ve done more damage to me and my emotions. But it was annoying and meh.

Backtracking, some of the twists seemed to come out of nowhere, deus ex machine that I felt was set up beforehand, but doubt that it was. One sub-plot in particular could’ve been fifty pages longer, instead of only a brief chapter of reconciliation and tied up thread.

However, I believe the characters were the worst contenders. They were inconsistent, or at least the main character, Joe, was.

He’s supposed to be smart, and I’ll give it to him; creating a ten million dollar profit over one year is a grand feat, but the rest of his actions were borderline intelligent. It wasn’t until two hundred pages in that I felt he grew a brain and actually did the right thing, which means he was gradually getting smarter. But that doesn’t help the first half of the book.

Furthermore, Thomas’s ambiguous relationship with his son was irritating. While I liked him as a character and was mad when Lehane removed him from the picture early on, the back and forth inconsistency with his son was a tad strong.

Still, my favorite guy in the whole book. Full of tough wisdom.

“’The foundation of your life is luck. Hard work and talent make up the difference.’”

Emma, I would argue, could’ve been the best, but emptiness is not what I would call a character trait. If there was some tragic backstory to this, maybe some sign as to why she held nothing, I could understand the blank stare of this romantic interest. But emptiness for the sake of emptiness is not personality. It’s bland and unexciting. Lehane managed to make her tantalizing around the hundred page mark, but shooed her off after that.

We only stayed with Joe, making this his story. I felt it could’ve been focused on an event or two than almost a decade of his life. Lehane was going for drawn-out realism when I disagree with such things in fiction.

While this may seem like a bad book, the critic in me has to laud his writing. It’s the easiest hardboiled style I’ve ever read. The sentences are polished, bare bones, and sharper than a knife. Lehane writes with a journalistic, almost detached style, and it works tremendously for recounting Joe’s life.

With a fast moving plot and well-written story, I can comprehend why people have praised this book as a great. But all you have to do is dig a little deeper under the shiny surface and see its threading inconsistencies. They may get better as the story ensues, but a shaky beginning and end doesn’t do this novel any justice.

“’The night. It’s got its own set of rules.’”

Rating: 6.5/10

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s