World Gone By
By Dennis Lehane
William Morrow. 320 pages. $27.99.
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Dennis Lehane's finest novel, 2008's The Given Day, is too ambitious to be condensed into a two-hour movie. It's a 700-page sprawler set in 1919, a tumultuous year in America, particularly Boston, where police went on strike, Babe Ruth enjoyed his final year as a Red Sox star, and civic corruption was rampant. At the center of the narrative is the fictional Coughlin family.
Lehane kept following one member of that family, Joe Coughlin, first in 2013's Live By Night, in which Joe becomes a successful mobster during Prohibition, and now in World Gone By, set 10 years after his criminal empire collapses and Joe moves south.
The backdrop is the port city of Tampa, Fla., with its diverse communities of Cuban immigrants, Southern aristocrats, segregated black neighborhoods, and criminal gangs with East Coast roots. Lehane sketches the scene in broad strokes, sometimes too broad, too often giving in to stereotype.
In contrast, Joe Coughlin has shades of black and white. He's a cold-blooded killer who treasures his son and late wife, a cynic who trusts no one yet maintains a close friendship with a mobster, a man of no illusions about women yet has fallen in love with Vanessa, the mayor's wife.
He's living a respectable life in Tampa, advising mob figures, including Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, and keeping the local crime factions at peace. Government agents worried about Nazi smugglers are interested in his influence on the shipping business.
While Joe and Vanessa are careful to hide their daytime trysts, they're careless about contraception. Her complicated pregnancy - her husband is impotent - joins a lengthening list of problems that turn Coughlin's well-ordered life into a nightmare. That turn comes in the climactic shoot-out that sets up his fate. The scene is the best writing in World Gone By, suspenseful and fast-moving.
Lehane loves tough guys, whether they're near-imbeciles with physical skills or shrewd, smart men such as Joe who can handle the fine print of a contract and the handle of a revolver with equal mastery. The characters, coupled with the colorful city of Tampa, drive the book, but the plot loses tension after the shoot-out, leading to an abrupt and unsatisfying finale. It is as though, after three books, Lehane lost interest in Joe Coughlin.
But, again, there's a son.