Who knew a historic novel full of gangsters, rum-running outlaws, dames with hearts of gold and coal and complex paternal relationships could spark such a spirited conversation?
By KAITE STOVER
Special to The Star
The dozen readers who gathered to discuss Dennis Lehane’s “Live by Night” at the most recent gathering of The Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club certainly did.
A couple of attendees admitted the novel, also a selection of the Kansas City Public Library’s winter reading program, wasn’t a book they would put at the top of their “next reads” pile. But everyone agreed it was an exciting novel with plenty to discuss. This Jazz Age crime fiction revolves around Joe, the wayward son of a powerful man in the Boston police department. Joe can’t bring himself to live within the confines of the law but doesn’t have a great desire to live so far outside of it that he’s constantly on the run.
A bank robbery gone tragically awry and the heartless betrayal of a gangster’s moll sends Joe to jail, where he cements some questionable business partnerships that take him to rum-soaked Ybor City in Florida.
Once firmly established in the bootlegging trade, Joe builds a profitable empire in partnership with the Cubans and falls in love with a beautiful Cuban woman. Joe’s Boston past soon catches up with his tropical present and sends his life spinning out of control.
Readers began the conversation by examining the period and observing that looking back on this volatile time in American history is far different from living it.
“The people who really were gangsters didn’t think of themselves as gangsters. They called themselves ‘outlaws’ and thought they were regular people who just happened to run speakeasies,” said Victoria Watts of Kansas City. Sherry Lockwood of Independence said, “I’ve never seen a gangster like him in the lead. He has a heart of gold, he’s a philanthropist, he wanted a family.” Pat Weiler of Prairie Village said, “Who knew these folks making rum and gin were so well positioned once Prohibition ended? They were ready to sell the liquor.”
These comments led to a discussion about the participation of everyday people in historic time periods.
“You never know if you’re living or making history. You’re just busy trying to make a living,” said Susan Tracy of Blue Springs.
There was energetic discussion around the character of Joe. One reader asked if they thought he was weak, given some of his decisions. Alberto Villamandos of Kansas City thought Joe was “a very likeable character” and wondered how long Joe’s rebellion against his father and society was going to last. He felt some of Joe’s reasons for wanting to be an “outlaw” were a little weak.
“Joe wouldn’t kill Loretta or the old moonshiner when given orders to do so from his own boss,” said Mike Donegan of Kansas City. “His own business would have run more smoothly if Joe had done what he was told.”
Jenn Kay of Lenexa said, “Joe has a conscience and a moral code. He understood the consequences of not killing people. Even if these actions did come back to haunt him.”
Sonia Smith of Gardner pointed to a pivotal scene in the book that might have contributed to Joe’s character development.
“The scene where Joe’s father orders the police to beat Joe up and then watches as they do it, this is reprehensible because the father condones this action and continues the cycle of violence for Joe,” she said. “It eventually ruins Joe’s father in the community. It doesn’t matter how bad your son is, you just don’t do this.”
Chris Dewberry of Kansas City agreed and mentioned Joe’s mother. “She wasn’t much better than Joe’s father at this point. We don’t know if she loved Joe at all. She didn’t notice him, and Joe felt isolated as a child. At least Joe’s father tried to show Joe he loved him.”
Marli Murphy of Kansas City thought this isolation contributed to Joe’s view of himself “as an outlaw, not a gangster. Joe didn’t consider himself a killing machine. He was most comfortable living on the outskirts of the law.”
Attendees took a few minutes to discuss gangster film and literature connections. Bob Lunn of Kansas City felt the dialogue in “Live by Night” was reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s dialogue.
“Lehane is aping Hemingway’s style of conversation during this time period,” Lunn said. “There are traces of F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘Gatsby,’ too. Especially the scene that takes place at the Statler Hotel. Hemingway dialogue and Fitzgerald descriptions.”
Villamandos noted the author did a great deal of research, but “at times the dialogue sounded a little too modern, or what a contemporary author thought the dialogue might sound like.”
For a novel about crime, gangs, revenge and redemption, “our discussion dealt with issues that are still current and we’re still grappling with them,” Lunn said.
Kaite Stover is the director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.