Monday, October 15, 2018

NOVEMBER ROAD is a Great New Novel from Lou Berney

I’ve long been a huge fan of Lou Berney’s novels, especially The Long and Faraway Gone, which won an Edgar in 2016, along with several other prestigious awards, and which remains one of my favorite books of the last few years. Consequently, I’ve been very anxious to finally get my hands on his new book, November Road, which was released last week, and which has gotten rave notices in advance of the publication date. Simply put, the wait was more than worth it. November Road is a great novel and, like its predecessor, it’s one of those books that I’ll be rereading often in years to come. 

The story is set in November 1963, in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it features two expertly-drawn protagonists. The first is Frank Guidry, a ranking member of the New Orleans mob, under the command of Carmen Marcello. A couple of weeks before the assassination, Guidry ran what seemed at the time to be a fairly inconsequential errand for Marcello. But the moment Guidry learns that the president has been shot in Dallas, he realizes that the task he performed was anything but inconsequential. 

Guidry has always been loyal to Marcello and has been a valuable lieutenant to the mob boss; he should have no reason for concern. But then other people close to the Marcello family who had tenuous connections to the errand that Guidry ran are suddenly turning up dead and Guidry is reluctantly forced to recognize the fact that, in a situation as explosive as this, anyone can be deemed expendable.

Guidry decides that he has no choice other than to run. With a deadly killer hard on his trail, he heads for Vegas, hoping to connect with an old friend who becomes his only hope of escaping the fate that Marcello wants to deal him. But the mob has eyes and ears practically everywhere, and the challenge of reaching Vegas alive will be a daunting one.

The book’s second protagonist is Charlotte Roy, a housewife from Woodrow, Oklahoma, who was once the most adventurous eleven-year-old girl in her tiny town. But that was seventeen years ago, and in a place like Woodrow, life happens—especially if you’re a young woman and most especially if it’s still the middle of the Twentieth Century. Charlotte is married now with two young, precocious daughters. Her husband, Dooley, drinks, has trouble holding down a job, and has even more trouble supporting his family.

Charlotte wonders if she’s selfish to want more out of life, both for herself and for her daughters. “Woodrow was idyllic in many ways. Quaint, safe, friendly. But it was also interminably dull, as locked in its stubborn, small-minded ways, as resistant to new things and ideas, as Mr. Hotchkiss [her boss]. Charlotte longed to live in a place where it wasn’t so hard to tell the past from the future.”

Her husband would never consider the idea of moving to a larger city and, Charlotte knows that he’s never going to stop drinking and become the kind of husband and father that she and their daughters deserve. And so, practically on a whim, a few days after the Kennedy assassination, Charlotte quickly packs up some things, gathers up her daughters, and hits the road for Los Angeles, planning to stay with a distant relative for a short time while she begins a new life for the three of them in California. Along the way, her path will intersect with that of Frank Guidry and when it does, everything will change—for Frank, for Charlotte, and for her daughters.

It would be unfair to reveal any more, but suffice it to say that this is a richly textured novel with characters that are fully realized. Berney has clearly done a great deal of research, and the reader finds him- or herself fully immersed in the early 1960s. The settings, the attitudes, and the atmosphere feel exactly right, and the story grabs you from the opening page and then refuses to let go. Frank Guidry and Charlotte Roy are characters that will remain with the reader for a very long time, as will this excellent novel. A great read, and an easy five stars.


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