If you've read much about Tampa's history of organized crime, you know it's a pretty grim business. Dennis Lehane has given the city a fictional gangster with style, a guy who can rock evening clothes, whip out a line of fast patter in any situation and gracefully walk the tightrope between the worst kind of crimes and the best society: "Joe Coughlin had a gift for bringing the beacons of the city into contact with her demons and making it all seem like a lark."
But don't mistake World Gone By, the novel that completes Joe's story, for a comedy. Lehane's 12th novel is a classic gangster epic, a darkly violent tale enriched by sharp insight into American life and Lehane's beautifully crafted prose.
In 2008, he published The Given Day, a historical novel that was the first in a trilogy. Set in Boston just after World War I, it told the story of Joe's father and older brother, both members of the Boston police force. Joe was a minor character, just a child. Live by Night chronicled Joe's turn away from the law and his rise to power as head of organized crime in Tampa during Prohibition.
World Gone By picks up a decade later, at the end of 1942. The nation is at war and Joe is no longer running the city's criminal operations. At 36, he's "too old to be a soldier, too Irish to be a boss."
Coughlin has built a facade of respectability — the novel opens with a posh party for Tampa's upper crust and its leading mobsters, hosted by Coughlin at a Bayshore Boulevard hotel — and he is raising his young son, Tomas, alone.
The facade doesn't fool everyone. A lieutenant from Navy Intelligence who calls on him puts it this way: "You're the consigliere — did I pronounce that right? — for the Bartolo Family, Mr. Coughlin. You're the fixer for the entire Florida crime syndicate. On top of that, you and Meyer Lansky control Cuba and the narcotics pipeline that begins somewhere in South America and ends somewhere in Maine. So do we really have to play this game where you're 'retired' and I'm a f------ dunce?"
Despite his power, Coughlin is feeling pressure from many sides; job security and longevity are not among the perks of life in the mob. Dion Bartolo, his best friend since boyhood and the boss of the Tampa family, has become increasingly unpredictable. The DiGiacomo brothers, Freddy and Rico, two of Dion's lieutenants, are way too ambitious. Joe is having an affair with the wife of another powerful man, a situation he knows is perilous but finds irresistible. And rumor is that someone, although no one can say who, has put out a contract on Joe.
And then there's the ghost. (Not a spoiler — it first appears on Page 4.) It flickers at the edge of Joe's vision, a young boy in outdated clothing, but no one he can recognize. He's a man who has sent plenty of people to their graves, but this ghost will send him on a quest for its identity that takes some strange turns indeed.
Lehane draws an engrossing portrait of Coughlin, by turns repellent and fascinating. He is a different man than he was in Live by Night, mainly because he is now a father. He dotes on his son, who is "almost ten years old and didn't lie. It was an embarrassing trait he certainly hadn't inherited from his father." The risks Joe took in stride during his younger days are now complicated and magnified by Tomas' very existence.
Lehane develops this theme of fatherhood richly throughout the book with other characters as well. There's Billy Kovich, a mild-mannered contract killer whose brilliant young son is also the center of his world; a long night he and Joe spend together forms one of the book's most harrowing chapters. And there's Montooth Dix, an imposing black gangster who runs the "Brown Town" part of Ybor City and has a surprising past — as well as three wives and a half-dozen children, including a son he's grooming to follow in his footsteps. The tale of Ned Lenox, a doctor who treats mob patients and who lost his wife in childbirth, is as chilling as any ghost story I've read.
This is not to say that World Gone By is heavy on philosophizing about family. Those issues are woven seamlessly into a high-velocity, bloody story as Joe struggles to figure out what the shifts in power around him will mean, and whether he can do anything about them.
He'll find both loyalty and betrayal where he least expects them, from a run-down waterfront motel to a bakery in Ybor. He'll travel to Havana for a meeting with the big bosses, including Meyer Lansky and Carlos Marcello, "known for a calm demeanor and a desire to be reasonable until reason had exhausted itself as a business model."
And World Gone By will end in a way that's both shocking and inevitable, all its ghosts come home to roost.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.