Set in Tampa, Florida, during World War II, Dennis Lehane’s novel “World Gone By” is driven by plotting that offers a brief and cathartic escape from the often repetitive reality of daily life. As Lehane’s career makes abundantly clear—with novels like “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island,” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” that were all adapted into films—his books are practically written to resemble screenplays. "World Gone By" is no exception to this trend. It is a trip into the dark, mysterious world of Mafia boss Joe Coughlin and his associated crime families. While Lehane’s work is balanced by some truly beautiful descriptions of character that lie beneath what seems like a mere beach read, it ultimately rests on a series of cheap thrills, twists, and gunfire.
As it narrates the story of Coughlin’s dealings in the criminal underworld, the novel skillfully builds up to each moment of action. While Lehane reveals to the reader Coughlin’s immoral actions, though, he also imbues Coughlin with a melancholy thoughtfulness, often focused upon Coughlin’s thoughts on family. In Coughlin’s line of work, death is an inevitability. As he considers a murder he commits, he thinks about the murdered man’s son: “By this time tomorrow night, his bed would feel alien…. He would never have another conversation with his father. He would probably never know why his father was taken from him.” Despite Coughlin’s violent actions, Lehane convincingly and beautifully portrays him as a man who is not without compassion, vulnerabilities, and love.
In particular, Lehane offers a characterization of Coughlin that, while reserving judgment on his character, leaves out neither the brutality of his actions nor the tenderness of his interactions with his son. Coughlin describes his son’s deceased mother to him, saying, “Something I loved about your mother’s face was that whole world was in it. I’d look at her sometimes…. I’d see your ancestors crossing deserts and oceans or walking the streets of the Old City with puffy sleeves and swords in their scabbards.” Lehane seamlessly and persuasively weaves together Coughlin’s ruthlessness with his love for his son and friends. This combination, as Lehane gradually imbues his novel with an unshakeable feeling of paranoia and sadness, contributes to that sense of inevitable loss.
This complexity of character, however, remains limited. Despite the beautiful way in which Lehane presents Joe Coughlin, the greatest letdown of the work is that he does not develop the other characters throughout the novel. While Lehane is successful in opening up short, interesting side stories that relate to Coughlin’s narrative, he throws at the reader such a spread of characters that the personality and history of most of them, as well as their relationships with Coughlin, get a perfunctory treatment at best. This often feels disorienting and imparts to the novel a lack of continuity. Coughlin doesn’t change in a meaningful way, and this story isn’t so much about people as it is about the events and ordeals that happen to them. What Coughlin cared about and loved at the beginning of the novel he still values at the end. The emotional flavors that, in retrospect, should have colored many of the events throughout the novel—feeling like things are falling out of control, that too much time has passed, that things were simply left to fate—are notably absent. At times “World Gone By” becomes a parched landscape, which only further accentuates Lehane’s heavy reliance on plot.
Additionally, it’s hard to overlook the fact that some of Lehane’s writing simply feels like he is trying too hard to be believable. At times, he seems oppressive in his attempt to convince the reader of his character’s credibility as a mid-20th century gangster. The novel begins by describing a series of photographs: “Joe Coughlin again, in this one, shaking hands with the Negro gangster Montooth Dix. Boston Joe, rarely photographed his entire life, but that night, he was photographed twice. This guy smoking a cigarette by the dame in white? He’s dead. So’s that guy. The guy out on the dance floor in the white dinner jacket? He’s crippled.” This kind of narrative that presents killings or maimings as simple, almost casual, events gives the book an atmosphere in which brutal violence is discussed with seemingly irreverent levity. Ironically, this only makes the violence encountered more brutal. This effect, however, is seemingly unintentional.
This novel’s evident goal, however, is to provide an escape from reality, not to reflect reality itself. Lehane packs the novel to the brim with drama, and, while he sets up the thinking and emotions of the characters before a point of action, he leaves little time for the reader to reflect on all that occurred, either while reading the novel or at the end. "World Gone By” is a book that, while filled with entertaining action, ultimately doesn’t say much.