DENNIS LEHANE’S new novel, World Gone By, opens with an epigraph from Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car”:
[…] I’m driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I’m telling myself I’m gonna be alright.
It’s an apt beginning, not just because of the haunting and mournful tone the song evokes, but also because if we know Lehane’s work, especially his two previous novels featuring World Gone By’s protagonist Joe Coughlin, The Given Day and Live by Night, we know that there never is such a thing as alright.
The novel opens in 1942. Joe Coughlin is throwing a party. “Before the small war that tore them apart,” the first sentence reads, “they all gathered to support the big war.” The big war is, of course, World War II, and while that conflict provides a grand backdrop to the action, it’s the small one — the concurrent south Florida crime drama narrated in World Gone By — that carries with it the most immediate and personal consequences. “In retrospect,” we learn, Joe “would look back on it as the Last Party, the final free ride before everything slipped toward that heartless March. But at the time it was just a great party.”
Ten years after the murder of his wife, Joe has found a kind of tenuous peace for himself as consigliere to the Bartolo Crime Family, an organization that, years earlier, he himself built and ran successfully. Joe has maintained his business interests, his safety, and the safety of his son, Tomas, by being a capable and loyal earner for the family. But Joe is an Irish man in an Italian world, an outsider struggling to maintain a fragile balance that will keep him comfortably ensconced in the good graces of those he serves: chiefly his lifelong friend Dion Bartolo, the current king of the Tampa empire. Lehane has a gift for capturing the intricacies and shifting power dynamics of the classic mob story, and it’s the near absolute power of the mafia boss and this power’s personal cost that forms the thematic core of the novel. Joe was wise enough to realize, after the events depicted in Live by Night, that relinquishing most of his power was the only way to build a sustainable life for Tomas and himself. He knows, too, that he can never really free himself from the legacy of the power he once possessed — and that as much as he wishes he could leave it behind entirely, he never can.
But in World Gone By, Joe faces an even greater threat to his precarious equilibrium when he hears rumors that a contract — almost too intricate and complicated to be believed — has been placed on his life. Among the most troubling details of this contract is the odd requirement that it must be executed on Ash Wednesday, less than two weeks away.
Meanwhile, trouble is stirring within the ranks of the Bartolo organization. Two flunkies of Freddy DiGiacomo, one of Dion’s lieutenants, journey into the territory of Montooth Dix, the African-American boss of Tampa’s black community, and attempt to gun him down. When Dix kills them both, Freddy demands payback. But Joe sees Freddy’s move for what it clearly is — a play to get a bigger piece of the black organization. This is the climate at the start of World Gone By; unrest is rising in the kingdom while Dion nurses a burgeoning cocaine habit and Joe races to solve his potential murder before Ash Wednesday.
As part of his investigation, Joe visits King Lucius, an independent operator who runs his own fiefdom and maintains control by paying appropriate tribute to all the other bosses. He rules from his throne on a houseboat imported from India that motors up and down the Peace River. The boat is a marvel of the exotic:
[It] had been constructed over a hundred years ago […] of anjili wood planks as smooth and dark as frozen toffee and held together by not a single screw or nail, but by coir knots coated in boiled cashew resin […] to behold it, one could easily imagine he’d been transported to the banks of the Ganges.
And King Lucius himself is an even more vivid example of excess than is his boat. He exhibits a warped sadism that Lehane deftly uses to contrast the rationalizations of the more “ethical” criminals of the Bartolo and Dix organizations. The sequence itself is a bold stylistic choice on Lehane’s part, and even though it evokes Heart of Darkness more clearly than it does any conventional crime story, the skill with which it’s deployed makes it feel perfectly suited to the world of the novel, a world in which the depictions of both Montooth Dix and King Lucius consciously draw on the rhetoric of power and empire in order to offer a kind of triangulation that allows a deeper understanding of Dion Bartolo and Joe’s relationship to his old friend.
In this paradigm, Dix is shown as competent and reliable in exercising his power, while Lucius occupies the opposite end of the spectrum in his psychotic excesses. What they share is their ability to earn for their superiors. It’s clear that it doesn’t matter how they rule, only that they are able to exploit the resources they control. Dion, in his position as the king of kings in south Florida, ostensibly has a greater measure of power than either of them, but his reign is ultimately the most vulnerable. It’s notable that Lehane uses very different language in his depiction of Dion. Royal imagery surrounds Lucious and Dix — they both, for example, are described in relation to the literal “thrones” from which they rule — but because of Dion’s close relationship to Joe, Dion is described in more human terms. And even though he sits in chairs, he has much farther to fall.
Although Joe never articulates it in such black and white terms, he is fully aware of the complexities of the situation and his place within it. He understands power. It is this awareness that sets him apart from the other players here, and likewise it’s the awareness that his fate is inextricably tied to Dion’s that Joe knows will inevitably lead to tragedy.
Over the course of the novel, Joe grows increasingly agitated by the recurring vision of a familiar-looking boy he can’t quite place. The boy first appears to him in the novel’s prologue, at the party, but at the time Joe believed him to be merely an out-of-place child. After inexplicably encountering the boy on repeated occasions, he begins to realize the ghostlike figure is some sort of hallucination.
Just past the midpoint of the novel, there’s a scene in which Joe visits a mob doctor named Ned Lenox, concerned that his recurring visions of the boy may be symptomatic of a brain tumor or some other malady. Lenox assures him that there’s no tumor in his head and that he’s under too much stress. Drink less, smoke less, sleep more, he tells Joe. During the examination scene, Lehane makes a stylistic move that contrasts with the narrative voice of the rest of the novel. He intercuts Lenox’s story into the scene in brief italicized paragraphs, so that as Lenox offers Joe his sensible advice, it is gradually revealed that he himself is haunted by a ghost from his own past. It’s an unusual scene that seems to draw a surprising amount of attention to itself and one that could stand on its own as a self-contained story. In the hands of a less capable writer, it might come off as a bravura set piece, but Lehane knows what he’s doing. The scene’s distinctiveness never allows it to fade into the receding flow of the narrative. Lenox and his ghost remain floating just outside the boundaries of the story’s unfolding arc, and it’s only in the novel’s devastating conclusion that it becomes clear why they need to be there.
When Ash Wednesday finally arrives, Joe is no closer to unraveling the plot against him. The climax is bloody, and in the aftermath, he is called to explain himself before the bosses of the organized crime families that extend beyond south Florida. The meeting takes place on a yacht off the coast and Joe knows that he may not return. The scene echoes Joe’s earlier journey into the heart of darkness to meet with Lucius, and again it’s made clear that no matter how power presents itself, whether it be as a mad king in the jungle or as a group of civilized businessmen behind an elegant table, the process is essentially the same — and stakes are just as high.
When the complex machinations of the Ash Wednesday plot are finally revealed, and Joe finds himself, through a cunning bit of maneuvering on his part, likely to survive the ordeal, he says to the man who put everything in motion, “Fuck you […] and everyone like you. Make you a prince, you want to be a king. Make you a king, you want to be a god.” It’s another Springsteen allusion, not to the elegiac despair of “Stolen Car” that opens the novel, but rather to the triumphant hopefulness of “Badlands”:
Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything
I wanna go tonight
I wanna find out what I’ve got.
It’s a testament to the success of World Gone By that the novel’s true climax comes not in heated gun battles and charged negotiations between crime bosses, but afterward, when Joe is questioning what he has and whether he’ll be able to find a way out for Tomas and himself, to find what he longingly refers to as “a path that inclines.”
The first novel in the Coughlin saga, The Given Day, is epic in its scope, providing a rich and historically expansive vision of the world it recreates. The second, Live by Night, tightens that scope considerably to detail Joe’s rise to power, but still covers years of its protagonist’s life. World Gone By is by far the most narrowly focused of the cycle. This tightening of perspective continues even within the novel itself, setting the “small war” against “the big war.” Lehane shows us that no matter how grand the sweep of history that forms our identity, and no matter how high we rise in the hierarchy of power, everything finally just comes down to a few small introspective moments when, if we’re lucky, we realize the true price we’ve paid to become who we are. It’s this realization that ultimately gives the book its surprisingly intimate and resonant conclusion.
At the end of the novel, Dion explains to Joe’s son, “Your old man and me, Tomas, we don’t believe in kings or princes or presidents. We believe we’re all kings and princes and presidents. We’re all whatever we decide to be and no one tells us different.” But we recognize the hollowness of his words and realize, too, that the great tragedy of Joe’s life is that, even though he’s long since tried to break free from the burdens of the power he once held, there will always be someone who will tell him different.
“Dad,” Tomas asks his father. “Are you a bad guy?”
“No,” Joe tells him. “I’m just not a particularly good one.”