World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

book cover

What they didn’t tell you about absolute power was that it was never absolute; the instant you had it, someone had already lined up to try to take it away. Princes could sleep soundly, but never kings. The ear was always tuned for the creak on the floorboard, the whine of a hinge.

The princes would probably do well to stay alert as well. Remember Richard the Third? World Gone By is the final volume of Dennis Lehane’s Coughlin Family trilogy. The series began ambitiously with The Given Day, set in Boston, among other places, in the late 19-teens. That book cast a perceptive eye on the social movements of the era, and the underlying problems that called them into being. It was an opus magnus, big canvas, big ideas, well realized. The second of the Coughlin books, Live by Night, shifted the focus to Florida in the roaring twenties, Prohibition, rum trade, a fair bit on the DNA of violence. It was smart, literary, insightful, and a damn fine read. It took a lot of wordsmith ordnance to produce the first two. But it seems that there were only a few cartridges left when it came time for the third. This is not to say it is not a good book. I liked it. But, compared to its older siblings, it is disappointing for the reduction in scope, and the feeling one might get that Lehane was dashing through this one to finish the series so he could move on to something else.

Joe Coughlin, in Live by Night, had carved out a nice little chunk of the Florida crime market. Even bought himself some public respectability. But now he has scaled back. Maintains a low public profile. Although he is still a member of the organized crime council, he functions as a freelancer, an advisor, a voice of wisdom, a gangland statesman almost.

“So was I a gangster?” He nodded. “Yes. Now I’m an advisor to people.”
He shrugged. “A friend of mine was Public Enemy Number Three about six years ago—“
She sat up quickly. “See, that’s what I’m saying. Who could begin a sentence, ‘A friend of mine was Public Enemy’ anything?”

He is doing well, plenty of money, a son he adores, a gorgeous, connected girlfriend. He hobnobs with the movers and shakers financial and civic, also has working relationships with the military and the police. But he gets wind that there is a hit out on him, and the game is afoot. Who, when, why? This gives the story structure, a ticking bomb, with tension ramping up as the deadline approaches.

book cover

Dennis Lehane -from Boston Magazine

Lehane brings back plenty of the cast from the last episode, but there is enough new blood to keep things pumping. Joe’s pal, boss of bosses Dion Bartolo, appears to have a mole in his organization. People are dying or being locked up. It’s bad for business and needs to end. One of Joe Coughlin’s challenges is to unearth the snitch. There is enough organizational politicking, back-stabbing (literally, as the case may be) and maneuvering for fans of Wolf Hall or Game of Thrones. The seats of power may be smaller, but the desire, and willingness to do whatever it takes is just as high.

The scale of this book is far different from that of its elders, 309 pps for this one, versus 402 for Live by Night and 704 for The Given Day. This one takes place within a few weeks, whereas the prior two covered decades. But thematic strains persist.

the gangster genre to me has always been a metaphor for unfettered capitalism. It’s the American system run completely amok without regulation, without anything. So whereas in the real world you have, say, Exxon buying off the State of New Jersey (a recently proposed [and accepted] pollution settlement) — well, in the gangster novel, that would just be somebody would get killed. – from the U-T San Diego interview

Family figures large here, again. Lehane brings back issues of fathers and sons, how violence by elders scar and steer their children. Can the cycle ever be broken? Moms have a hard time of it, mostly by their absence. Although one, who is, delightfully, a floral arranger and contract killer, makes a well-deserved dent in her abusive hubby’s cranium to achieve her widowhood. Widowers abound, usually with sons. It’s a man’s world, more so than in the earlier books, probably because the female characters have been killed off.

I didn’t realize that until after the book was pretty much going to print. I could have thought that one through a little bit more. Where the hell are all the women in this? – from LA Review of Books interview

Lehane touches on race as well, most poignantly in a scene where Joe Coughlin talks with his mixed race son, Tomas, about being called a nigger.

There are some wonderful characters here. A top-hatted Montooth Dix conjures images of Baron Samedi. A mob doctor has a particularly interesting tale to tell. An unaffiliated don has a group of bodyguards with a particularly daunting rep. One of the mob bosses has a gambling problem. Contract killers have kids, and even a big deal like Joe Coughlin has to cope with his kid getting chicken pox. So there are both broad and fine brushes in Lehane’s set.

Throughout the book Joe sees a young boy. He is uncertain if the boy is real, a message from the other side, maybe manifestation of a brain tumor. But the sightings trouble him. And this is not the only potentially spectral child presence in the book. He wrestles with feeling alone in the world as well, the larger family of which he was a member having, despite the lie about putting family first, done an excellent job of making orphans.

Joe gives some thought to the hereafter, making up for his crimes, sure, but more interestingly, offers up a very interesting notion of time

“Do you think she’s happy? Wherever she is?”
His father turned on the seat and faced him. “Matter of fact, I do.”
“Bus she must be lonely.”
“Depends. If you believe time works like it does down here, then, yeah, she’s only got her father for company and she didn’t much like him.” He patted Tomas’s knee. “But what if there’s no such thing as time after this life?”
“I don’t understand.”
“No minutes, no hours, no clocks. No night turning into day. I like to think your mother’s not alone, because she’s not waiting for us. We’re already there. “

So, what’s not to like? Were this the first book in the series, or a stand-alone volume, one might look at World Gone By differently. But it is part of a trilogy, so the first two parts must be taken into account as well. How does it compare? The Given Day is a big-time historical novel. An epic, a saga, about a time and place, covering considerable time, considerable history. It is a book with heft, and not just from its 700+ pages. Live By Night, while not sharing the same scope as its predecessor, was an amazing book that carried the Coughlin family gangster story forward in the context of American history. There were added artistic elements that gave the work some extra oomph. With World Gone By the scope of the first, and even the second book is abandoned for a smaller tale. The ghostly visitation by a young boy that Joe experiences would be more interesting if Lehane had not played a very similar card already in Live by Night. The sociopolitical concerns persist, and I suppose there is nothing wrong with flogging a theme, but it seemed to me that this had been done pretty clearly in the previous volumes, so that when we stop by there again this time it was a case of been-there-done-that. There is a strain of melancholy here that exceeds that of his prior books. Check out Ivy Pochoda’s interview with Lehane in the LA Review of Books on that. There are reasons.

I liked the book. There is a lot of substance surrounding the gangster tale. Some of the secondary characters were wonderful. The ramping up of tension worked well. You might not have the same sort of reaction I did to what seemed recycled material. That is mostly what kept me from liking it more. (Wish I could give it three and a half stars) Joe Coughlin is an engaging character and, despite his chosen profession, one can relate to him. World Gone By completes the Coughlin trilogy, day, night, gone.

Lehane has already begun work on another trilogy, this one set in more contemporary Boston.

Review posted – 5/1/15

Publication date – 3/10/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages


—–Ivy Pochoda for the LA Review of Books

—–John Wilkens for the Union Tribune San Diego

—–Colette Bancroft for the Tampa Bay Times

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction

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