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To call Live by Night a sequel is not quite accurate. It is a new addition to the unfolding story of America through fiction. Joe Coughlin was the youngest son of the Boston family of cops in Lehane's saga, The Given Day. As the family splintered around the Boston police strike of 1919, young Joe turned into a true black sheep, committing petty crimes with his childhood buddies. Lehane follows this fragment of the family into the story of America's great failed experiment of Prohibition. In the early part of the book, Joe winds up in prison and forms an unlikely alliance with the jailed head of the Boston mob. From there, he is sent to the tropical setting of the novel, into Tampa's heat, sunshine and Latin-fueled emotions. Rum is the mechanism and Joe's path to riches and power - though both exact a grave toll on Joe as he mirrors the nation.
Lehane's writing is both disarmingly poetic and serious, even as it makes you smile. As Chandler wrote, "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man." Lehane describes one thug this way: "Loomis, a former club boxer at Mechanics Hall and sparring partner for Mean Mo Mullins, was said to have a punch like a bag of cue balls." In one sentence, with a tight smile, he's told us this guy is tough (he spars with a guy nicknamed "Mean"), he's probably too dumb to be a contender and his fist is something you don't want to feel. But you've got the entire measure of the man - and he's just a face in the crowd. Later in the book, after Joe's in Tampa and a chancy theft goes well, he and a woman tumble into bed: "The first time they made love in her room above the caffe it was like a car crash. The mashed each other's bones and fell off the bed and toppled a chair and when he entered her, she sank her teeth into his shoulder so hard she drew blood. It was over in the time it took to dry a dish."
Where The Given Day was a large, David Lean-like saga, Live by Night is a big story writ small, shot in close-up, a national story told through nine years in one man's life like B-movie film noir that outlasts the blockbusters. It is a grand and timeless story of love and hate, revenge and fear and hope, as well as folly, greed and the age-old question of whether it is possible for anyone to outrun their fate or outrun a bullet.
If his predecessor in writing deserved a stylistic moniker, so should he. I would say we need to have the term "Lehanian". For if Chandler is one of the brightest stars in the literary universe, surely Dennis Lehane's will be seen to shine just as brightly and his works will be celebrated just as deservedly as they're read and re-read over the decades.