News Section: Arts and Entertainment
Book Set in Local Area Debuts as Best-Seller
Dennis Lehane has built a broad audience with his gritty Boston crime novels, which have spawned the blockbuster movies Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. In his latest book, Live by Night, the author, who lives locally for part of the year, taps into Southwest Florida's rich history to deliver a tale about Boston gangsters trading in rum during prohibition. Set mostly in Ybor City, memorable plot lines also twist and turn through Palmetto, Sarasota and Longboat Key. The book debuted at number 8 on the New York Times bestseller list, just four days after hitting the stores.
Lehane's greatest strength has always been his ability to draw on the rich and unique culture of working-class Boston in fleshing out bizarre characters who still manage to seem all-too-real, especially for those familiar with the area. The way he takes a local dialect so mired in colloquialism and turns it into bluntly poetic dialog has become his signature art form, while aiding easy adaptations to the silver screen. Live by Night again draws all of its memorable characters from this stock and trade catalog. The book isn't quite a sequel, but more of a spinoff of his ambitious 2009 historical novel, The Given Day, though his real inspiration would seem to be an affinity for the history-rich enclaves of prohibition-era Tampa.
Readers from the local area should find much to like in Lehane's meticulously-researched exploration of Ybor during the height of its time as the city's Latin quarter and the epicenter of Florida rum-running. The Tropicale and the Columbia are frequent stops, as is the former Tampa Bay Hotel, which today serves as Plant Hall on the campus of the University of Tampa. Protagonist Joe Coughlin even tries to do a deal with John Ringling, attempting to turn his failed Longboat Key Ritz into the state's first legal casino.
A local moonshiner who won't sell out or pay tribute to Coughlin's Boston crime syndicate brings him to Palmetto, where he encounters an eccentric third-generation 'shiner who, well … one could definitely imagine hailing from Palmetto. The final shootout, a hard to fathom chase involving a machine-gun mounted airplane, a tugboat and some skiffs, all in a bloody race against slow-setting cement shoes, takes place somewhere near Eggmont Key.
Fans of Lehane might not find Live by Night, the author's first real "gangster" book, to approach the level of depth found in his best work. Coughlin is a bit thin compared to the author's more memorable protagonists and at times seems almost like a manufactured device to make use of the doubtlessly exhaustive research that went into The Given Day (he's supposed to be the now-grown child of one of that book's main characters), while allowing him to mine the rich settings of his seasonal home. The more prominent local characters aren't nearly as well spun as those drawn from his hometown in Lehane's other work, where even the supporting roles tend to be very well-developed.
Live by Night is not quite historical fiction, but doesn't have the introspective themes of some of Lehane's headier stuff – especially his dark and brilliant Mystic River. Coughlin, who has just been released from a two-year prison stint back north after a botched bank robbery, is a walking cliché – an Irish Catholic scarred by his distant father and depressed mother, he chronically questions his faith, but without getting any deeper than maybe this is all there is, while falling in love at first sight and then proceeding to do the dumb things for the women he hardly knows that have pretty much defined his existence. His many near-brushes with death become almost comical until his next to last, a somewhat intentional stabbing at the hands of a bafoonish Klansman, borders on absurd. He reads as the kind of guy who would more likely be a peripheral character in a Lehane thriller than its focal point. Think of Live by Night as a highly-entertaining beach read with a healthy dose of plot twists which keep the action moving between nostalgic descriptions of days gone by.
Boston native Ben Affleck has already signed on to write and direct the big screen version, just as he did for Gone Baby Gone. Ybor's preserved architecture is well suited for on-location, period-specific filming. Because the backdrop is such an important part of the story, I'd be shocked if they didn't shoot it locally, so don't be surprised to see Hollywood rolling into the area in the near future. Meanwhile, check out the book, a perfect weekend read for the fall months.
Click here to add a comment to this page