WORLD GONE BY
Tony Soprano dragged himself to a shrink, but he was not a man of remorse. The protagonists in Dennis Lehane novels, however, are wracked with Irish-Catholic guilt. In Lehane’s first five books, it was the P.I. Patrick Kenzie who felt the sting as he blurred ethical lines to serve what he believed to be a higher sense of jus- tice. Here it’s Joe Coughlin, ex-con, rum-run- ner and former Mob boss now living in the straight world as a war profiteer in Tampa, Fla., circa 1942. Coughlin acts as a bridge between the Mob and the mainstream business community—not mutually exclusive entities, of course. Despite his current role as a well-liked peacemaker, he learns a contract has been put out on his life. He has two weeks (until Ash Wednesday, naturally) to figure out who did it and why. Only by reck- oning with ghosts from his past can he put the pieces together. A particularly sadistic Mob boss—the kind who casually murders an underling during a business meeting—tells Coughlin, “You think feeling bad about your sins makes you good. Some might find that kind of delusion contemptible.”
There are no heroes in Lehane’s universe: The good guys are usually merely trying to make the best choice from an array of horrible options. No wonder David Simon hired Lehane to write for The Wire; no wonder Clint Eastwood, who explored similar ambiguity in his best film, Unforgiven, adapted Lehane’s Mystic River to make his second-best film.
The new novel is tangentially related to 2008’s The Given Day, Lehane’s (successful) attempt to write a Great American Novel, set in 1918-19 amongst Bolsheviks and Babe Ruth and race riots and corrupt police chiefs (Joe Coughlin’s father) in Boston. Lehane’s finest hour, that book was sprawling and rich. This one is a straight-up gangster tale. Set in Florida, it could have drawn out Coughlin’s Cuban connections; it doesn’t. Now that Lehane has respectability outside the crime genre, he returns to his darkest impulses; there’s an entirely superfluous and tangential tale in it that’s beyond disturbing: let’s just say the “happy ending” involves a stillborn baby.
Lehane doesn’t need such cheap tricks. Here, his fallen father figures, betrayals, existential dilemmas, mobsters and mysteries are more than enough to keep us riveted.