To appreciate Lou Berney’s novel, November Road, you have to reimagine November 22, 1963. First, you must discard much of what you know about that day, plus all you may have learned from the Warren Commission. Then you need to pretend an entirely different rationale about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, one you might more likely find in the tabloids than in the mainstream press. Imagine, for example, that Kennedy was targeted not by a naïve Lee Harvey Oswald but by the mob, and that Kennedy’s death, and Oswald’s subsequent murder, came at the hands of mobster hitmen. If you can believe such a scenario, you are ready to enjoy November Road.
No, the novel is not a screaming tabloid replica. Rather, it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking fictional narrative about a hypothetical mob and its long-reaching tentacles that fateful fall. Frank Guidry, a loyal New Orleans fixer, draws an unfortunate assignment—to get rid of the real Dallas sniper’s getaway car. In so doing, he also draws a target on his back. Because he knows too much and can piece together too many incriminating details, Frank is expendable. To save his own skin, he needs to run. But where? Miami or Las Vegas? He sets a false trail toward Florida and drives west on Route 66.
Along the way, Frank encounters Charlotte Dooley, who along with her two daughters is fleeing a disastrous marriage and an uninteresting life in a small Oklahoma town. What better cover, Frank decides, than to attach himself to this ready-made family? When Charlotte accedes to his overtures, the unlikely combo continues west together, followed closely by an enforcer prone to mayhem and violence.
Here is where November Road takes on a contrapuntal storyline. Much to his surprise, Frank finds himself for the first time caring for a woman. He actually enjoys playing pretend-father to her children. What began as a cynical self-protective ploy soon turns into genuine affection. Meanwhile, as she lets go of her own restrictive past, Charlotte finds herself responding to his wiles. As their connection develops, however, the mob remains in aggressive pursuit. And that pursuit is unpleasant, to say the least.
Berney’s staccato diction and syntax not only replicate the chase but also echo the contradictions occurring in Frank’s heart. Knowing he is putting Charlotte’s family in danger, he needs to decide what course of action he needs to take. To keep them safe; to keep him safe, too. Yet Frank can only surmise the pursuit. The reader, on the other hand, knows exactly what havoc the pursuer can wreak, how many bodies he happily leaves in his wake. Back and forth the storyline darts between the improbable love story of Frank and Charlotte and the uncontrolled violence that follows close behind.
If Berney’s rapid pace and vernacular language are real strengths of November Road, so too is his depiction of place. The old-world opening scenes in New Orleans are deliciously decadent, as are the Las Vegas nuevo-riche locales. In between, middle America unrolls from one unremarkable whistle-stop to the next. Overall, November Road is a remarkably good read. You just need some willing suspension of disbelief—in the mobster underpinnings, in the unlikely coupling. What needs no disbelief, however, is the novel’s ending. Pitch perfect, Berney saves the best for last. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Lou Berney: The Long and Faraway Gone; Gutshot Straight; Whiplash River
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