Monday, 20 August 2012

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane | Confessions of an outlaw gone gangster

Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane's latest novel, Live by Night is a thrilling dive into the 1920s-1930s gangster underworld of Boston and Florida. The self-proclaimed outlaw Joe Coughlin gets involved with the girl of one of the big local bosses, Albert White, and before he knows it finds himself jailed for a crime he did not commit. In jail, however, he becomes the "adopted son" of a bigger boss, Maso. When Joe returns to freedom, he's put in charge of Maso's Florida operation, and Joe quickly goes to work bribing the cops and fighting off the KKK in the area.

Joe lives by night, and there is always the threat of being betrayed by one of your own men. As we follow Joe's own experiences, the pendulum always keeps changing. Despite the unbearable heat in Florida, Joe builds a life and a name for himself there. However, Joe meets unexpected resistance in a drug and prostitution victim he helps rescue. The girl's father instills the fear of God in her, and she starts preaching against the potential casinos which could become legal at the end of prohibition. Joe has a lot riding on the casinos, but the girl gets the popular vote. Joe's reluctance to "turn her lights off" become fatal for him, and soon Joe finds himself on a boat, knee deep in a block of cement.

Joe always emphasizes that he lives by night, because the rules are different. "You, you buy into this stuff about good guys and bad guys in the world. A loan shark breaks a guy's leg for not paying his debt, a banker throws a guy out of his home for the same reason, and you think there's a difference, like the banker's just doing his job but the loan shark's a criminal. I like the loan shark because he doesn't pretend to be anything else..." (p. 144). However, as time goes by, Joe has to admit to himself that the boundaries between living by day and night, between good and bad, are becoming blurred: "Something was getting lost in them, something that was starting to live by day, where the swells lived, where the insurance salesmen and the bankers lived, where the civic meetings were held and the little flags were waved at the Main Street Parades, where you sold out the truth of yourself for the story of yourself" (p. 284). 

The story is action packed and always entertaining. Lehane uses proper hard-boiled language which I just savour reading: "Dion Bartolo hit him in the mouth with his pistol. hit him hard enough to knock him out of his chair and draw some blood. It got everyone else thinking how much better it was to be the one who wasn't getting pistol-whipped than the one who was" (p. 5). The plot keeps thickening, and we can't help but remember the proverb "live by the sword - die by the sword".

I couldn't have read Live by Night at a better time. I recently started watching Boardwalk Empire, a brilliant "gangster" show set in the early 1920s, so I've got the social setting and context just right to get the most out of this book. A great story with everything you expect, brutal action, thrilling suspence, passionate romance and the femme fatale, as well as characters you enjoy knowing. Recommended!!!

Oh, and best of all? Not only are they making a movie version, but the crown prince of gangsters, Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing Joe! Eeeeeeeeeeeek! Can't wait! I hope there are certain scenes (uhum) they don't cut out for the movie script..!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce | The Old Man and the Road

Longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a real gem. This novel is truly tender, and I came to grow fond of and care for Harold and Maureen, the main characters of the story. Retired, they live a quiet life in Kingsbridge in the south of England. One morning a letter arrives that will change their lives. A colleague Harold has not seen in twenty years, Queenie Hennessy, is terminally ill with cancer. After Harold has penned a reply and walks on his yacht shoes to the post box, something changes, and Harold gets this urge to keep walking. A chance encounter with a girl working in a petrol station spurs what will be Harold's pilgrimage, as he carries on walking, all the way towards Berwick-Upon-Tweed in the north of Scotland in the hopes of saving Queenie. 
Maureen is left clueless behind. While Harold phones her to let her know what's going on, Maureen lives in denial about the whole situation, and feels forced to fend off the neighbour's questions regarding Harold's whereabouts. Does Harold love Queenie Hennessy? 

As his pilgrimage progresses, Harold has to deal with more than merely nth degree blisters, hunger and unpredictable weather. All the people Harold meets on his way share part of their stories with him, and Harold feels it as a slight burden to get a peak into their lives. As he walks, Harold finally comes face to face with the problems in his marriage and in his life that he has been oppressing for twenty years. But when Harold's pilgrimage hits the news, Harold is blessed with co-pilgrims he didn't ask for who also claim to be walking to save Queenie. 

Meanwhile, Harold's absence is forcing Maureen to take a good hard look at herself and their marriage. I love the friendship that grows between Maureen and the neighbour Rex, and the way Harold's absence becomes the catalyst for Maureen to come out of her shell. 

This is overtly a story of a pilgrimage, but it is also the story of life as a pilgrimage. Harold's walk becomes a metaphor for his walk through life. On his walk he experiences moments of elation and great fate, he seemingly comes into his own: "He watched the squares of buttery light inside the houses, and people going about their business. He thought of how they would settle in their beds and try to sleep through their dreams. It struck him again how much he cared, and how relieved he was that they were somehow safe and warm, while he was free to keep walking" (p. 186). But he also suffers moments of extreme pain and doubt, and there are times when he can barely continue putting one foot in front of the other. And as the days go by, it becomes more and more questionable if the elderly man in yacht shoes can make it in time to save the dying Queenie.

The novel is also to a large degree a story about border crossing. Apart from the geographical border crossing of the walk itself, Harold also crosses all kinds of psychological borders; his walk is in a sense making him connect with nature and everyone in it."Again he felt in a profound way that he was both inside and outside what he saw; that he was both connected and passing through. Harold began to understand that this was also the truth about his walk. He was both a part of things, and not" (p. 188).

I loved this book. When I think back on the reading experience, I feel warm inside. I want to give Maureen and Harold a great big hug, and I want to join Harold on his pilgrimage, but maybe with better shoes. I think there is a lot to learn about acceptance, forgiveness and redemption in this book, and that it is never to late. It's no harder than putting one foot in front of the other.