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Lehane takes on the Roaring Twenties in new novel

By Bill Forry, Managing Editor, special to the BIR, November 2, 2012

“South Boston punk becomes a Florida crime boss.” That’s how one newspaper boiled down Dennis Lehane’s latest novel. Sure, that’s one way of summarizing “Live by Night,” the Roaring Twenties gangster page-turner that will also be a big-studio film some day soon, but any sting that Lehane might suffer from the blunt summary is soothed by the source: The New York Times Book Review noting that his latest novel has debuted at No. 8 on the paper’s bestseller list.
No big surprise there. Dorchester’s most celebrated man of letters since old Eddie Everett himself has developed a loyal — some might say crazed —international fan base after ten books, three of which have become celluloid blockbusters at the hands of Scorsese, Eastwood, and Affleck. (How many other writers have to take to Facebook to tell their fans to chill the hell out over an ill-advised Globe review?)
Lehane’s fan base will get bigger still with the release of “Live By Night.” In a United States enflamed yet again by bootleggers, Tommy guns, and flapper chicks, Lehane has tossed a barrel-full of choice Havana rum onto the bar.
“Live By Night” is not a sequel, but two key characters from his Boston police strike epic “The Given Day” (2008) make important cameos. A third, the aforementioned Southie “punk” Joe Coughlin, is the main character— a 20- year-old wiseguy who early-on sniffed out that his two-toilet, lace-curtain Broadway existence was made possible by the graft of his Boston police department superintendent father.
The future crime boss Coughlin is an upstart stick-up kid who comes of age in a decrepit prison in Charlestown. He gets fully groomed for the bootlegging racket by a North Shore mafioso, Maso Pescatore, who uses Coughlin to corner the Florida end of the triangular rum trade. Coughlin uses him to build a south coast syndicate that eventually extends to Cuba, while he fends off half-wit yokels of the KKK variety and, more menacingly, old rivals who want more than a taste of the Sunshine State action.
Lehane says he was drawn to the lesser-known rum trade precisely because he wanted to avoid a hackneyed take on the Nucky Thompson-type whiskey racket. Florida is also familiar turf for Lehane, who left Dorchester after BC High for college there and has kept a residence in the state ever since. (He and his young family divide their time between Massachusetts and Florida when he’s not on a book tour.) So Lehane was vaguely aware of the charms and dangers of Ybor City, the Tampa neighborhood that was once the epicenter of cigar manufacturing and rum-running in the 1920s. “I respond to older things and places with a lot of history attached. And Florida in general is not known for that, but Ybor City is an exception,” Lehane told the Reporter in an interview.
“It’s very much as described in the book. It looks very much like New Orleans,” he said. “It was built around cigar manufacturers and it was Cuban, Italian, and Spanish back in the day. That’s why I was fascinated by it. It’s a little dangerous right now, but still preserved, and there are still the same Cuban social clubs. It has all those things I really love about America at the end of the day – areas where the melting pot melted.”
The first third of the “Live by Night” satisfies our local fix. Characters dart off streetcars and into flophouses in Scollay Square. They frequent speak-easys in Charlestown and on Dot Ave. and they rip off warehouses and card games on Northern Avenue. But the Roaring Twenties era is what captivates Lehane’s imagination most, so there are also tipsy peeks into high-society preserves, including a pivotal scene from opening night at the old Statler Hotel (now the Park Plaza.)
Lehane has his usual fun with the hometown crowd, too. He transports a certain well-known restaurant from Lehane’s boyhood days in Dot, plopping it into the swank lobby of a downtown hotel— a deliberate dope slap for the local crowd who think this is all on the level. “I like to do an inside joke. If I want to move a restaurant, I can. This is fiction,” Lehane explains.
And because it’s fiction, Lehane can resurrect whole sections of Boston that were bulldozed and buried in the name of urban renewal. In “Live by Night” he reconstructs whole blocks of the West End— the stomping grounds for Coughlin’s Boston crew.
“Its fun, because it’s a great tragedy,” said Lehane. “When I see pictures of it or my old man used to talk about it, it was shredded and turned into a hideous complex of ugly buildings. The Hurley building is the worst of them all, but it makes you hate all of it, City Hall, the plaza, all of it. You have to go to pictures to see what was there.”
Even so, one of the reasons Lehane “comes home” in his books so frequently is because Boston remains a city whose past is a constant feature of its present— from the neighborhoods to downtown.
“I can be a bit of homer,” Lehane admits. “I have traveled extensively now and Boston remains one of the unique places in the country. It’s emblematic and very distinct. Those places have become so rare in this country. But Boston is not in danger of losing its Boston-ness, not in my lifetime.”
The Coughlin story will go on, Lehane says, for at last two more installments— including one that he’s busy writing now. The road, almost certainly, will wind back to Boston and also to Havana, since the family now has important blood ties to Cuba.
In the meantime, Ben Affleck has already bought the rights to turn “Live By Night” into a film. Affleck won praise from Lehane and most Boston critics for his adaptation of “Gone, Baby Gone,” one of Lehane’s acclaimed Patrick and Angie detective stories with a strong Dorchester hook.
So who’ll play Joe Coughlin? Don’t bother asking the writer. If Ben needs some advice, he has Dennis’s number.