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Lehane's newest novel tackles Tampa's Prohibition past

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:24 PM
TAMPA -

You can't find the new book "Live By Night" in Ybor City, and word hasn't spread here yet that the historic cigar-making district takes center stage in this Prohibition-era novel by best-selling author Dennis Lehane.

They don't stock it at the Ybor City Museum State Park or the bookstore at the Hillsborough Community College campus. Even Ybor Chamber President Tom Keating hadn't heard of it, but he was interested to learn the movie rights already had been optioned to Leonardo DiCaprio.

"If we can interest a national-level star in coming out, we can talk about the history of Ybor – this period was kind of our frontier here," Keating said.

This just in: DiCaprio has ceded the rights – to Ben Affleck.

"He'll write and direct. He's the guy everyone wants to work with," Lehane revealed during an interview last week at a sidewalk café on Seventh Street in Ybor.

Optioning the rights doesn't always mean production is imminent, or even likely, as many an author has lamented. But this is Dennis Lehane, whose stories are snapped up by some of the biggest names in the business. Clint Eastwood directed "Mystic River," Affleck did "Gone, Baby, Gone," and DiCaprio chose to star in "Shutter Island."

Ybor City may be going Hollywood.

Lehane has no details. He leaves that to the movie guys, and counts his blessings that both Eastwood and Affleck resisted pressure in their movies to change the morally ambiguous endings he wrote. If Affleck wants his help this time, Lehane said, he'll call.

But Lehane can talk with passion about the place that inspired his new novel, another in what's becoming a series of stories about outlaw Joe Coughlin. This time, Coughlin rises from punk robber in Boston to bootlegging kingpin in Roaring '20s Ybor City.

"Look up there," Lehane said, pointing to a neon sign that juts from a second-floor wall on Seventh Avenue. "That was here back then. Where else in Florida do you find a brick building from then that hasn't been torn down to put up a Hooters?"

The darker corners of the Boston area are the setting for most of Lehane's works, and he defines himself by the place. It's not South Boston, though, that iconic Irish section; Lehane bristles at the label "South Boston writer." Rather, it's Dorchester, where he was raised by Irish-immigrant parents and where his family knows he'll be buried someday.

"That is every reason I'm successful. I told my wife, 'Honey, when I'm dead, I'm going to Dorchester.' It's not logical; I don't live in Dorchester anymore."

Still, Boston guy Lehane felt comfortable branching out to write about Ybor City. It was even easier, he said, than writing the opening segment of "Live by Night," which picks up in Boston right after the "The Given Day" – Lehane's best-selling, 2008 historical epic.

Lehane, 47, is no stranger to Ybor. As a college student in Florida, he partied along Seventh Street. And the husband and father of two lives the cooler half of the year in St. Petersburg, teaching at Eckerd College and writing at an office so close to Tropicana Field he can walk there to cheer the Rays. Unless they're playing the Red Sox.

He doesn't consider himself a Florida author, doesn't do the satire that Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey have contributed to the genre.

"People say, 'Well why haven't you written about Florida before?'" Lehane says. "I didn't write about Florida; I've written about Ybor in the 1920s. Which is Casablanca."

In a wide-ranging interview along Ybor City's main drag, Lehane talked about baseball, the war on drugs, why there will never be a "Mystic River II," the meaning of community – and by extension, what it is to be an American.

He finds that meaning, he said, in places like Boston. And with its rich history as a destination for immigrants from Spain, Cuba and Italy, he finds it in Ybor.

"We are multiculturalism," Lehane said. "That was the point of this country. The melting pot idea was not to go link up with our race, our group, that thinks just like us, and build a fence around it.

"It was meant to be a big stew, and to me, the areas that I love are the areas that represent that. This area is a place where they just tossed everybody who didn't fit anyplace else and they just forged an identity."

He draws the line, though, at immigrants who don't learn English. His mother still speaks Irish, he says, but picked up the local language as soon as she got here.

"The only conservative bone I have in my body, partly because I lived in Miami, is on the the issue of speaking English. It's like, 'You get in this country you better f------ learn to speak English. If you don't learn it you're screwed, and it can't be any other way."

Ybor City didn't come to Lehane as a setting until he already had his next story in mind. He wanted to write a gangster book, a whisky story, and had since he was a kid. But Boston didn't play much of a role in Prohibition. And the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," set in Atlantic City, was about to debut with a similar storyline.

"And then I went to meet somebody in Ybor. I went early. I was walking around and I was annoyed. I've got to write a story. I've got a great character, I've got a gangster. And I'm here on Seventh. All of a sudden – I remember this really great moment when I went, 'Rum, rum, nobody's done rum.' I ended up doing rum."

Lehane is already deep into the next book featuring Joe Coughlin, set around the time of World War II.

"There's definitely some Cuba, definitely some Ybor – a lot of Ybor – and some downtown Tampa. I gotta say, one of the favorite things I've ever written is this botched mob assassination on Seventh."

There are pieces of Lehane in his character Joe Coughlin, as there are in Patrick Kenzie – the modern-day Boston bulldog of a private investigator featured in six of Lehane's books.

"He has the same taste in music as I do, he loves the Marx brothers like I do, and he's got the same sense of humor as me because you can't fake sense of humor. You can't give somebody a sense of humor you don't have. It's impossible."

Lehane once cited author E.L. Doctorow, another writer of historical fiction, in saying those who write from any time period should be true to their own. Lehane said he was mindful of that writing "Live By Night."

He sees parallels between the famed mutual aid societies of Ybor City, whose central feature was an affordable health plan, and the challenges of providing universal health care today. A badly injured Joe Coughlin, the gangster, is saved by the care he receives at the hands of the societies.

"When did we answer the, 'Am I my brother's keeper' question in the negative?" Lehane asks. "I missed that. When did empathy become a dirty word in this country?

"So I look at a community like this, and it's everything a community is supposed to represent. Back in the day they had your back."

Lehane sees parallels, too, in his exploration of Prohibition, with all its folly, and the modern-day war on drugs. Minor offenses, he says, are filling our prisons.

"We are No. 1 in the world in one thing: incarcerated prisoners – 25 percent of all of them, and we don't make up 25 percent of the world. If I was king, I would legalize pot tomorrow. And I don't even like pot.

"Potheads don't beat the s--- out of people because they're in a bad mood. I know plenty of drunks who do."

Lehane is enjoying his growing fame, happy that writers don't suffer from the false intimacy that can drive fans to mob movie stars.

He tells a story from the Red Sox ballpark, a favorite haunt near his home in Boston.

"I actually went into the bathroom once at Fenway, and it was jammed, jammed, and everyone was hammered. And I remember going into the bathroom and trying to find a toilet and somebody said, 'There's a famous writer in here.' Everybody looked, everybody was clapping. Guys were shouting at me. That was fun. But that's it."

Lehane and his wife, an optometrist, enjoy their regular haunts in St. Petersburg, too – Bella Brava, the Old Northeast Tavern. He's been a Tampa Bay Buccaneers season ticketholder and has grown into a fan of the Rays, musing about whether Boston and St. Petersburg can't just swap baseball teams.

"I love the Sox, obviously, but I love the Rays. I always say I love them right up until the moment they play my team. They're everything that baseball is supposed to be. A bunch of young talented kids out of farm systems. They play their hearts out for Maddon and Maddon is a great coach."

As to why there won't be a sequel to Lehane's best-seller "Mystic River," the story of friends haunted by a betrayal from their childhood, the author credits the editor and publisher he's worked with for two decades – and reveals a special privilege he enjoys in the business.

"We've seen what happens when I write from a more cerebral place. I'll write 'Mystic River II,' you know, and it never goes anyplace. So they just ask, 'Is he excited about it? Is he passionate about it? Then we're fine.' My publisher allows me to build my career in a way no other writer can build their career."

He adds, "My editor figured out years ago that each of my books is a love letter. I don't just write about cities, I write about sections. So 'The Given Day' is a love letter to the North End, 'Mystic River' is a love letter to Charlestown, there are love letters to Dorchester, love letters to South Boston.

"And this part of this book," he said pointing to "Live By Night," "is a love letter to Ybor. It's everything I love."

Meet Lehane Monday

11:30 a.m., Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum, 100 Beekman Lane, Tarpon Springs. Dennis Lehane will talk about his work and give a short reading from "Live by Night." Tickets are $25 include a catered box lunch. Information at tarponarts.org.

7 p.m., Four Green Fields, 205 W. Platt St., Tampa. Dennis Lehane makes a joint appearance with "The Prophet’s" Michael Koryta. To attend, reserve a copy of either author’s book through Inkwood Books (813) 253-2630 or InkwoodBooks@gmail.com.

 


djoyce@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7604

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