Vancouver Noir

My review of Vancouver Noir for the New York Journal of Books is here.

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Manuel Ramos, “The Golden Havana Night”

Leave it to Manuel Ramos to drop a wry pun in the subtitle of The Golden Havana Night.

It’s “A Sherlock Homie Adventure,” we are told, and it’s such a winking and witty reference you have to wonder how or why nobody else dreamed it up before.

Both Holmes and the term “homie” go back to the late 19th Century, what took so long for a writer to mash them up?

This particular homie is Gus Corral, first introduced in Ramos’ 2013 novel Desperado. The brass plaque on his office door says Augustin Corral—Investigator. But he is also an ex-con and he is still earning his private eye stripes and finding his bearings on the occasionally mean streets of Denver. Gus gets his office furniture from Goodwill. (This is no Sherlock Holmes pastiche.)

“It’s no news flash that ex-cons weren’t usually at the top of the list of likely-to-be-hired, no matter what the job might be,” Gus tells us. “I thought I was good at what I did; a bit more experience and I’d be excellent, I told myself on those days when no one called, no one stopped by the office.” Corral is a survivor and he is trying to shake the “prison paranoia.” He tries to not always assume the worst about people. Afterall, he makes a living on other people’s troubles.

The latest client with troubles is none other than Cuban defector Joaquin “Kino” Machaco, who walks into Gus Corral’s office with no appointment. He’s the highly paid all-star center fielder for the Colorado Rockies and he’s quite insistent that Gus is the right guy for the job at hand. “The ballplayer loomed over me like a gorilla about to smash a termite nest. I pushed back my chair to open breathing space between the surprise visitor and me.”

Kino needs to have $500,000 ferried to Cuba. Kino’s brother Alberto left Cuba at the same time as Kino but is in debt to a mobbed-up dude named Miguel “Hoochie” Almeida. To complicate matters (why not?) Kino happened to have killed Hoochie’s brother before he defected. Since wire transfers to Cuba don’t work and since Kino is no position to make the trip himself, he is asking Gus to head to Havana with Kino’s brother and make sure the pay-off happens.

More importantly, to “make sure nothing goes screwy.”

Spoiler alert: it does.

Despite warning from one sister, Gus heads south. Within hours of landing in Cuba, there is a barrage of bullets, a hideous and bloody van-versus-ox crash, the precious money goes missing, and Gus wakes up in a room stretched out and shackled to a bed. And thus begins Gus’ efforts to sort through the true nature of his captors, who claim official government status, and to decipher the complicated world into which he’s been tossed, a world where “everything is a secret and yet nothing is a secret.”

Not starting from a power position even in his home country, Gus is now trapped by unknown forces in a foreign land and the situation calls for Gus to go with the flow, which leads to a road trip to Trinidad and some keen observations of the colorful Cuban countryside, along with a sampling of rum and cigars along the way. This section is contemplative and pastoral, with Gus trying to suppress his relentless paranoia. Gus is ever alert and wary, but savvy enough to take advantage of the opportunity to absorb Cuba and also figure out the true nature and intentions of those around him. There are observations about cultural and language differences and the changing face of Cuba, too. The radar Gus developed in prison proves handy, so does what he learned from all the prison-time reading.

Some aspects of the Cuban case wait for resolution after Gus returns to Denver. Those loose ends get wrapped up in startling fashion. There is also challenging subplot, involving bad cops in Denver, that causes significant “wear and tear” on Gus’ psyche. The parallel case practically begs for a college-level essay comparing and contrasting police corruption in Cuba and any good old American city. In Ramos’ hands, however, this is done in subtle style and is underplayed. Story first, lecture never. The writing is cool and down to earth. We sense the streets and Gus’ growing unease. Snaking throughout the whole book is the dark business of random drivers being shot and killed along the I-25 corridor.

This is Gus Corral’s world and it can get messy. The Golden Havana Night carries a deliciously organic flavor. The writing is rich, but not overdone. The pages fly. Supporting players, such as Gus’ two opinionated sisters, are developed with care. At the end, of course, we all want Gus Corral back as soon as possible to show us the city of Denver, or anywhere else in the world, through his jaded, homie eyes.

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Review:

Desperado

 

 

 

Q & A with Manuel Ramos and Review:

The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories

 

 

 

Review (for the New York Journal of Books):

My Bad

 

 

Q & A #71 – Tim Weed, “A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing”

At the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference last September, two different friends raved about Tim Weed’s workshop on the Essentials of Voice.

So I invited Tim on the RMFW podcast to do an interview about that workshop. To be prepared, I picked up a copy of his short story collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, to get a flavor of his writing. I read the first story and realized I would need to read the next. And the next.

You get the idea.

It’s a terrific collection. Highly recommended. (A full review follows.)

So Tim Weed, who lives in Vermont, was kind enough to answer a few more questions by email.

Tim is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program and has served as a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions in Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego. He’s the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and a Solas Best Travel Writing Award, and his short fiction and essays have appeared in Literary Hub, Colorado Review, The Millions, Fiction Writers Review, Writer’s Chronicle, Backcountry, and many others.

A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing made the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Shortlist and was a finalist in the short story category for both the 2018 American Fiction Awards and the 2017 International Book Awards. His first novel, Will Poole’s Island, was named to Bank Street College of Education’s list of the Best Books of the Year. Tim teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the Newport MFA in Creative Writing. He’s a member of the Vermont Humanities Council Speakers’ Bureau.

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Question: So we go from South America to Italy to Granada in these stories and make a bunch of other stops, too. And the characters abroad are, I believe, always Americans in a foreign country. Even in the stories set in the United States, like Scrimshaw, the main character is a visitor to the island where the story takes place. What is it about travel and placing your characters in fresh landscapes that appeals to you as a writer?

Tim Weed: I’d answer that in two ways. One, while my fiction isn’t autobiographical per se, it does use life experience as a point of departure—as a kind of a raw material, like a sculptor’s clay or block of marble. And I’m fortunate in that my life experience so far has involved traveling and living abroad and spending time outdoors in landscapes that might be considered “fresh.”

Two, I’m a firm believer in the ecstatic or trance-inducing quality of fiction, and one of the things I’ve learned as a writer is that vivid descriptive prose has a lot to do with that transportation effect. The stories and novels that have had the most impact on me as a reader are the ones that made me feel immersed in a strange new world. The ones where you put down the book and feel that you’ve really been there. Fresh or exotic fictional landscapes, as opposed to familiar fictional landscapes, simply demand more descriptive prose—with the happy byproduct, in my view, of a stronger transportation effect.

Question: How do you know you’ve got a good germ of an idea for a short story? Do the sparks of inspiration have any commonalities?

Tim Weed

Tim Weed: I get these vision-fragments. Where they come from is mysterious. They seem to be place-based for the most part and usually involve characters doing something in a particular landscape. Sometimes they just won’t leave me alone. I start getting these cascading insights—snippets of scene or dialogue—and that’s when I know that I’ve got something worth writing.

Question: The stories all come across as very grounded in the real world, yet mystical elements play a role, like the vision at the end of “The Dragon of Conchagua” or the entire reality shift in “The Foreigner” and the acid trips in “Tower Eight.” There is some advice out there not to write about dreams or visions but a few or your stories plunge fearlessly into the subconscious, whether drug-induced or entirely lucid. Advice and thoughts for writers on this alleged don’t-go-there rule?

Tim Weed: Great question, Mark. To me, one of the great advantages of fiction—one of the things it can do that no other artistic medium can with the same degree of power and effectiveness—is to give voice to the human interior: thoughts, emotions, a fresh and evolving perspective on a story-world as filtered through a conflicted or agonized or yearning or self-deceiving point of view character. It’s this special quality of fiction, I believe—the way it can provide a reader with the vicarious experience of a consciousness not her own involved in a mighty struggle—that makes it an indispensable art, ensuring that it will never be fully supplanted by movies or TV shows or computer games.

One of the reasons human consciousness is so fascinating, for me, is that it’s quite often not straightforward or rational: it dreams; it speculates; it envisions; it hallucinates. It pushes the boundaries of objective perception. In my opinion, imposing some kind of rule against “going there” is not only wrong, it’s self-defeating. Why would we as fiction writers want to close ourselves off from some of the deepest and most interesting aspects of the human experience? Why would we deny ourselves the full run of the comparative advantage of our artistic medium?

On a less abstract level, the reason that my fiction is full of dreams, visions, and hallucinations is that these things have been an important feature of my own experience as a human being living on planet Earth. One of my ambitions as a fiction writer is to get at some of the deeper truths of existence; it would be less than truthful to leave those things out. I also just find them intrinsically interesting.

Question: Are all these stories based on some scrap of personal experience? Have you ever worked for a utility company in Colorado? Tried to get into a Grateful Dead show at Red Rocks without a ticket? Worked construction on Nantucket? Climbed a volcano in South America?  Are any of the stories drawn completely from the imagination or do you find you need to have put your feet on the ground where the stories are set in order to write.

Tim Weed: Yes to all of the above. You write what you know to a certain extent, or at least that’s the case for me. But because it’s fiction, you also have the freedom and in a sense the obligation to push things beyond what has existed in reality; to ask certain provocative “what if” questions and carry them to their logical conclusions. That’s true for nearly all the stories in the collection: each was inspired by a scrap of personal experience which eventually took on a fictional life all its own.

Question: Can you imagine writing a story set completely in an office building? Conversely, what is it about nature that attracts you as a writer? The storm in “Six Feet Under the Prairie,” the dangerous conditions in “Diamondback Mountain,” the random grip of a dangerous fishing spot in “Keepers” (great title, by the way).

Tim Weed: It’s funny, I once did an exercise where I wrote a passage in the style of Cormac McCarthy but set in an office building with an accountant as the main character. It was good for a laugh and proved somewhat illustrative on the question of how one’s writing voice is to some extent shaped by content. Beyond that, I don’t know. I suppose that nature—or more precisely, the interaction between place and character—is one of my central topics as a fiction writer because it’s something that preoccupies me personally. On a species level, direct, visceral interactions with nature strike me as one of the things we’ve closed ourselves off from, and even to a large extent forgotten about—to our own peril as a species. So it strikes me as an important thing to write about, especially at this moment of critical environmental crisis.

Question: I’d love to hear what inspired “The Foreigner.” Have you ever been in such a situation, completely thrown off guard and feeling like you don’t know what’s what?

Tim Weed: I spent a year directing a college semester abroad program in Granada. We had an apartment in the Albaicín, in a 15th century building with a terrace that had a panoramic, close-up view of the Alhambra. It was an incredible period in my life, the closest I’ve ever been to an extended sojourn back in history. There’s something uncanny about Granada too—as there is about Rome—a sense of the spirits of all those who lived and died over all those centuries still being in some way present. The story was inspired by that lingering aftertaste of the past: ghosts roaming the ancient cobbled streets and alleyways, and the art and architecture coming to life. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as lost as James in “The Foreigner,” but I have experienced loneliness, culture shock, and the sense of isolation that goes along with living as an expatriate in a society far removed from one’s own. I have no doubt that some of those feelings found their way into the story.

Question: When you start writing a story, do you know if your characters are going to make poor choices, like the lead characters in “The Money Pill” or “Scrimshaw”? Do you know where a story is heading when you plunge in? You’re not afraid of leaving us hanging at the end, say (without giving too much away) like the end of “The Dragon of Conchagua” or “Scrimshaw.” How do you know when ambiguity works?

Tim Weed: Interesting question. With stories, as opposed to novels, I almost never give the ending much conscious forethought. As a writer, endings are one of the most difficult things for me. In a few cases the endings were there from the beginning—more as a vague feeling as to where the story in question was going—but the endings of the majority of the stories in the collection only fell into place after a drawn-out process involving multiple rewrites, with plenty of fermentation time in between.

Question: You have worked with and taught many writers over the years. What is your core philosophy about helping writers find their voice? What is the one mistake most budding writers make?

Tim Weed: I think it’s really important to try to understand a writer’s intention, and to try to help them achieve that intention rather than imposing one’s own aesthetic preferences or prejudices. I think every writer should study the craft, and the best way to do that is by reading broadly and analytically—like a writer. But a writer needs strong intuitive skills as well, and I’ve found it helpful to remind aspiring writers to keep these two skills—intuition and intellect—sharp and separate. To give yourself fully to each, but to alternate their use as you make your way through a draft.

In terms of mistakes: not reading enough, not taking feedback seriously enough or taking it too seriously, following too many writing “rules,” getting too caught up in perfection to finish a project, getting stuck for too long on one project instead of moving on. There are many pitfalls for budding writers. The good news is that they’re generally pretty easy to avoid if you’re looking out for them.

Question: Favorite writers? Favorite short story writers?

Tim Weed: Tough question! The last good novel or story I’ve read is usually my favorite. That said, I’ll take advantage of the chance to list some of the fiction writers that have stood the test of time and remain in my personal pantheon: Tolkien, Tolstoy, Wharton, Hemingway, Steinbeck, le Carré, Mary Renault, Cormac McCarthy, Ursula K LeGuin, Peter Carey, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Jim Harrison, James Welch, Patrick O’Brian. Newish candidates awaiting entry: Hilary Mantel, Paulette Jiles, Anthony Doerr, Amor Towles, Paula McClain, Leonardo Padura, Lily King, Peter Heller, Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a shifting list, and no doubt there are many more that I’m forgetting. And for short stories specifically: Cheever, Hemingway, Wharton, Denis Johnson, Paul Bowles, Robert Stone, Jim Shepard.

Question: What’s next?

Tim Weed: I actually have two newly finished novels ready to go out into the world. I know that you, Mark—and many of your readers too—are aware of how difficult the traditional publishing environment is these days. Hopefully both books will find their way out. Fingers crossed! And of course I’m working on something new. Some of the best advice I got early in my writing career was simply that: Always be working on something new . . .

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Tim Weed’s website

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Review:

 

A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing starts with a story called “The Camp at Cutthroat Lake.”

The opening is bucolic:

“Two boys and a man in his late forties sit in an aluminum rowboat in the middle of a lake at the bottom of a broad mountain basin. The lake mirrors the sky of a calm summer afternoon, but tendrils of cold air coming down from the surrounding crags will soon dispel the fragile illusion of warmth.”

If there are two words that sum up this entire collection of sharply-drawn, memorable stories, it might be “fragile illusion.” In Tim Weed’s stories, reality often slips away. Or slips in and out of focus. Or reality, if you’re not paying attention, will reach up and grab you by the throat. The opening beauty of “Cutthroat Lake” quickly becomes a stark lesson in life and death with a “faint, dry pop.”

Self-discovery is one theme in this collection. So is loneliness. And longing—the alluring Cuban women in “The Money Pill,” the elusive Soledad on Granada in “The Foreigner” and the tempting Kate in “A Winter Break in Rome.”

Nature is a major presence and sometimes an active participant, dealing its vicious cards in random fashion. There is always movement and activity, real people putting in real work for outdoorsy pursuits or a paycheck, either way. The stories themselves move quickly, too. There’s an entire trip up river to the dense jungles and back, including a major moral quandary and a strained relationship between two scientists, in the brisk pages of “Mouth of the Tropics.”

Weed takes us to New Hampshire and Nantucket, The Andes and Venezuela, and Rome and Cuba, too. His characters are primarily young men and they are often strangers in a foreign land—even the construction worker Phil in “Scrimshaw” commutes by plane to Nantucket and marvels at the island, “an Aladdin’s lamp crescent of sand and yellow-green heath; a rich man’s playground of weathered cedar cottages and summer mansions.” (Watch for the allusions to magic, like the Aladdin reference; they are plentiful.) When there isn’t regular travel, Weed’s men drop acid, contemplate hallucinations, or ponder their own powerful dreams.

Weed sets vivid scenes with ease. The landscape is never in doubt. It’s very hard to imagine, after reading these thirteen entries, that Weed could write a story set entirely under fluorescent lights in an office building (but I wouldn’t mind seeing him try). But don’t think landscape as scenery, think landscape as character. It is frequently integrated front and center, as it is in “Diamondback Mountain” and in the most heart-pounding story here, “Keepers.”

The writing is muscular and tough, but Weed’s characters are often open to their sensitivities and vulnerabilities. (Not always; see “The Money Pill” or “Scrimshaw.”) But in stories like “The Dragon of Conchagua,” in which a former Peace Corps volunteer named John returns to Ecuador in an attempt to scale a high-altitude volcano, the main character is keenly aware of a key memory from his youth, one that involved his hiking partner Gabe, and puzzles over a fleeting apparition. John comes across a wrecked vintage Cessna, the fuselage half-consumed by pillow moss. “Kneeling to peer into the cockpit, he sensed a fast-moving object overhead and glanced up reflexively, fear gripping his gut like a fist. But apart from blue sky and a few lingering wisps of fog, there was nothing to see. Taking a deep breath, he squinted down into the cockpit. Once again, there was nothing to see.” This moment neatly foreshadows the harrowing finish with both flight and visions playing key roles.

Immersive, visceral, and chock full of sensory detail, “A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing” is a winner from first story to last. Murder? Yes, it’s here. But in the traditional sense it’s in short supply. Fly fishing? Yes, it’s here. But in the traditional sense, it’s in short supply.  Like the stories within, the title of this collection is a bit of a fragile illusion.

Rick Ankiel, “The Phenomenon”

It might be one of the most troubling, unsettling sports videos you’ll ever see—Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals throwing five wild pitches in the third inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves in 2000.

In one inning, Ankiel went from one of the top arms in the major leagues to one of the oddest stories in the histories of the sport, certainly one of the strangest careers.  He was pulled in the third inning of that particular game but in his next start, game two of the National League Championship Series, he was pulled in the first inning after throwing 20 pitches, five of which flew wildly past the catcher.

“One moment, I was a pitcher,” Ankiel recalls in The Phenomenon (check the curious double meaning of that word). “The next, I was a patient. A project. A cautionary tale. A lab rat. A fairly miserable human being. I was, quite suddenly, my father’s son. A casualty of the game, of a broken family, of a heartless world, of all the stuff that may or may not have been swirling around in my head.”

Ankiel had “the yips.”  It’s an unexplained condition.

Writes Ankiel: “It’s an anxiety disorders. No, it’s ‘misplaced focus.’ Unless it’s plain old ‘performance anxiety,’ which, I suppose, is something very close to ‘choking,’ except nobody likes that word.… It’s a neurological disorder. Narrower? How about ‘focal dystonia,’ in which one’s muscles contract involuntarily? Broader? The old-time golfers called it ‘the yips.’ Older time than that? ‘Whiskey fingers.’ Yes, it is neurological. Unless it is psychological. Or physical. Or all of it, all balled up into one large sob.”

Can you imagine doing what you have been trained to do and performing that something on a national stage in front of a whole stadium full of people and a national television audience—and then (suddenly) not being able to do that thing?

Ankiel is not alone. There are baseball players (Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch) and golfers and others. Many others. But given the number of professional athletes out there, it’s a small percentage.

Dealing with this particular inner monster would be hard enough. Writing about in a book? Baring all? Telling all? Impressive.

The Phenomenon is extremely well written. I’m going to go ahead and give credit to Tim Brown, longtime baseball writer, for that (especially since Ankiel admits late in the book that he was never much of a reader, let alone writer).

If Ankiel was done after the 2000 season, there might not have been much of a story. (Impossible to know). But because Ankiel turned and faced the monster, and clawed his way back, it’s easy to root for Ankiel. In fact, Ankiel works his way back as a pitcher and then decides to pull the ripcord and retire on his own career, deciding to walk away on his own terms (but with the monster still alive).

But there was still one more chapter to go—and with his agent’s encouragement and the Cardinals’ organization behind him, Ankiel goes from pitcher to outfielder and transforms himself into a very good ballplayer known for a powerful arm and some good seasons as a hitter, too. He hit 25 home runs in 2008.

Besides the baseball side of the story, Ankiel and Brown weave in lots of off-the-field business about Ankiel’s family, childhood, and his relationship with the legendary sports psychologist, Harvey Dorfman. It’s all compelling, primarily because it’s an utterly human story in so many ways.

A remarkable book. It’s about so much more than baseball. Final note—I “read” this on audio and got the added benefit of Ankiel reading his own story. Very well done.

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Blood and Gasoline

It’s hard to imagine a better cover for the collection of stories inside Blood and Gasoline. In this case, what you see is what you’re gonna get. Bullet holes, gunfire, busted windshields, and racing motorcycles. There’s mayhem on the cover and tons of mayhem inside, many with a sci-fi flair. John Hartness’ blurb on the back (Hartness wrote the foreword) about says it all: “Mad Max meets Sons of Anarchy.” Desperation abounds. And when you’re desperate, what better means to remedy the situation than hop in the nearest manmade machine and let it roar?

This is a revved-up collection. The writing is solid first story to last. Edited by Mario Acevedo, Blood and Gasoline is a hot-rod of action, no dragster parachutes allowed.

Gabino Iglesias puts the pedal down first with “Faster Than Weeping Angels,” about a just-released ex-con named Jaime who quickly finds himself behind the wheel of a 13-year-old Impala with the cops hot on his tail. Jaime isn’t going back to jail. Iglesias leaves us hanging, but that’s okay. We know what’s coming.

Carter Wilson’s “Escobar Style” focuses on the fate of Tyson, a military contractor who is being held captive in Iraq and witnesses an execution before making a bold escape, one that confronts him with tough choices regarding the lives of others and his own. When his escape vehicle Jeep blows a tire, Tyson is out alone in the desert. “I stare down the path from which I’ve come. There is a very obvious end of the road metaphor here, but I force that from my mind and suck in the night air. In the moment the world is as blissfully silent as the inside of a snow globe. In this silence I think about life and about death, how all of us will be one of those things much longer than the other.” The one-two punch of Iglesias and Wilson is a great starting combo; Jaime and Tyson would have much to discuss about making decisions.

Angie Hodapp’s “The Taxi Man” is a gritty, swampy, water-soaked sci-fi tale about a woman named Bendrix who is trying to escape the Escopeta River. “Who is she kidding?” she thinks. “She’s never leaving the Escopeta. This polluted swath of bilgewater is her home, and someday, it’ll be her grave. She’ll die here. And she’ll probably deserve it.” Her chance for escape comes along and Bendrix zooms out on her Flug (jet ski on steroids?) across the trash-infested waters. She takes advantage of an opportunity that presents itself on board the taxi, only to realize, much too late, that she took for granted the power of her own desires and the problem of keeping steady routines. “The Taxi Man” takes place in a well-imagined world ripe with backwater details.

Merit Clark’s “Rescue” is set in the very real world of New York and the world of revenge, told from the point of view of the jilted ex. “I lost my mind when he left, when he ghosted me, driving off to points unknown towing a U-Haul. I realized for the first time how possible it was to be stupid, to not see the signs, to be blindsided.”  Our first-person narrator has a fix for her oversights. A GPS tracker helps. So does a beater car, a disguise, and a plan. A very heavy plan with wicked consequences. “Rescue” (a great title) is a gem.

Manuel Ramos’ “Sitting Ducks” is a strong story about bank robbers on the run and there are fine entries from Gary Phillips, Jedidiah Ayres, James R. Tuck, and many others.

Blood and Gasoline rocks. And it’s one book you can judge by the cover.

Q & A #70 – Lou Berney, “November Road”

Lou Berney’s last book, The Long and Faraway Gone, won the 2016 Edgar Award (Best Paperback Original) and a slew of other awards including the Anthony, Macavity, and the Barry.

Now Berney is out (Oct. 9) with November Road and that big buzz you hear is all the advance praise rolling in, especially with a clean sweep of starred advance reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.

Like The Long and Faraway Gone, November Road is elegantly written, centered on memorable characters, and refuses to be shoved into the fussy labels of genre fiction.

November Road rests as much as it runs. With the Kennedy assassination in Dallas casting a brooding shadow over the land, Berney captures the specific mood of November 1963 without overdoing it. Not even close.

A full review follows.  In the meantime, Lou was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

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Question: Road trips and personal reflection—they seem to go hand in hand. Getting away from home, encountering new people and new spaces seem to inspire a need to take measure, take stock. Agree? Was the idea of the road trip and the interweaving stories of Frank and Charlotte there are the outset? Or did you start with the assassination, and rummage around in the time period and all that it evoked, and look for characters with that particular backdrop?

Lou Berney: Originally, no, November Road was not going to be a road trip novel. The primary setting was going to be a small town in Oklahoma—a “cool-off” town where the mob sent guys after a high-profile job (it’s a real thing; my brother-in-law grew up next to one in Kansas).

But I started writing and the small town just felt too static for the story I wanted to tell, the characters I wanted to dig into. The book is about identity, and choosing to change (or not) the person you’ve always been, and it just felt right to get the character in physical flux as well as emotional.

Question: Did you follow these roads? Take your own trip? Any good research stories in general with the assassination or otherwise? You’re so young, how did you go about nailing the post-assassination mood?

Lou Berney: I’ve driven I-40 (which parallels old Highway 66) from Oklahoma City to California dozens of times, and that landscape is definitely fresh and real to me. Plus, my mother, who grew up during the Depression, always told me vivid stories about her family’s journeys back and forth to California.

As for the post-assassination mood, I talked to a lot of people who remembered it vividly. I noticed that they all felt a similar sense of shock and uncertainty, but their specific stories—where they were, what happened when they heard the news—were all very individual.

Question: The wide-open west, somehow, seems fitting as the escape routes for both Frank and Charlotte. Had they each headed east, it almost seems like it would have been an entirely different story. Or none at all. Did you pick west for them because of the wide open spaces or, perhaps, because they were running from all the confusion and chaos and politics of the assassination and the fallout back east, in Washington, D.C.? Or is west where one goes to take the “various slivers” of yourself and find out what’s what?

Lou Berney: You know, it’s funny, I never even considered the possibility that they would head east. Going west is such an American thing – it’s the direction you head for new beginnings, fresh starts. There’s a specific plot reason why Frank and Charlotte each head west (the “friend” who might save his life, her only living relative), but they had to head west.

Question: Frank Guidry is one-of-a kind—not too many lieutenants in the mob (one assumes) knows Keats and Coleridge and the subtleties of Virgil. And pays attention to Bob Dylan.  The poet-loving gangster. Who knew? Inspired by anyone in particular? He’s a terrific character and seems to be stretched to his limits in terms of thinking about changing everything about his situation on Earth. Ironic, I suppose, that he thinks of Vietnam as a place or relative obscurity.

Lou Berney: Frank, in a lot of ways, is a quintessential New Orleans character. If there is one place in the United States where a mob lieutenant would quote the classics, it would be New Orleans. I wanted Frank to have an active and restless mind. He loves his life of easy pleasure, but deep down he’s a curious guy. Deep down, he’s open—maybe, just a little—to new things.

Question: Okay, can we talk Bob Dylan? “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is a recurring motif in November Road. And that song is over a year old when the events take place in November Road. Are you a Dylan fan? Through and through? (I am one—fair warning—so choose your words carefully.) How did you settle on that song? Was it these lines? “Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, darlin’” and “So I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road”? Care to comment? Did those lines capture the vibe of the country after Dealey Plaza?

Lou Berney: I am a Dylan fan, though not “through and through” by any means. (One of my favorite concerts ever, in the 1980’s, was seeing Dylan at an outdoor amphitheater. He was awful. And then at the end of the show, everyone standing and applauding and expecting an encore, the tour bus pulled up TO THE STAGE, he got on without a word or a wave, and the bus drove away. I loved it.)

As for the song itself, it just struck a chord with me like I thought it might strike a chord with Charlotte—because the lyrics are so rich and evocative. It’s one of those great songs that are – or could be—about a lot of different things. Dylan’s songs opened doors at a time when a lot of popular music was about shutting them.

Question: The Long and Faraway Gone was packed with music—and November Road has its share. Now’s your chance to share some suggestions and faves from any era you’d care to spotlight.

Lou Berney: Allow me to direct you to the Spotify playlist my publisher put together (I picked all the songs).

Question: Ray Bolger? Really? Was his appearance based on something factual (one assumes)? That is one terrific scene.

Lou Berney: It makes me really happy that you like that scene. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the entire novel. I re-wrote that scene probably a dozen times. It just wasn’t quite working, it felt too gimmicky (Ray Bolger!). But then finally I wrote a line of dialogue, when Ray looks around and realizes he’s in the middle of a lake, and he came alive as a real character to me.

I don’t know if Ray was playing Vegas at that exact date, but he did play Vegas around that time, which I was happy to discover. It was a way to thread in some more Wizard of Oz, which was kind of the touchstone for the book for me.

Question: Those kids. I don’t really have a question here, but those kids are so sharply drawn. Were you worried about putting those kids in so much jeopardy?

Lou Berney: Thanks! And definitely I was worried. For a long stretch of the writing process I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. And it was hard knowing things that Charlotte didn’t (e.g., she and her kids were being chased by a ruthless, murderous hitman). I was stressed.

Question: Okay, last question, although I have a million. Why is the Kennedy assassination such a psychological touchstone for this country? There were so many looming issues at the time—Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and so on. But aren’t there always?

Lou Berney: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think maybe the assassination must have kicked apart a lot of certainties for a lot of people at the time. It came completely out of the blue and made people question everything – the future, themselves.

Question:  I lied. Call me the unreliable inquisitor if you want. What’s next?

Lou Berney: You’re a writer. You lie. I understand that. I’m working on a psychological thriller about marriage. No lie.

++

Lou Berney’s website

Previously reviewed: The Long and Faraway Gone

 

 

REVIEW:

Mobster Frank Guidry is breathing the “brittle and thin” air in Flagstaff, Arizona. He is a long way from his New Orleans home. Guidry is looking over his shoulder, wondering if he has outrun his pursuers. He locks the chain in his hotel room, wedges a chair under the knob. He has reason to worry. And a line from Dante crosses his mind: Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Charlotte Roy is also on the run and contemplating divorce from her estranged husband back in Oklahoma. Time and distance have delivered a deep case of self-reflection. Charlotte knows nerve is not her strong suit. She is learning to stop doubting herself. She feels the “beginning of a shift” inside. “She’d felt it, like the branches of a tree stirring as the wind picked up.”

For both Charlotte and Guidry, there is no straightforward path. It is no ordinary November. It is the November when President John F. Kennedy. The zeitgeist has suffered an earthquake. Everything seems possible, everything seems equally impossible. In Frank Giudry’s case, however, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if the authorities digging into Kennedy’s killing could quickly wrap things up because Guidry may know too much and may have heard something he wasn’t supposed to hear and he has reason to believe—good reason—that there is a hit man following him as he tails it cross-country.

When Guidry encounters Charlotte on the journey west—Charlotte’s run has been stalled due to car trouble—he shrewdly realizes that traveling as a family man might be the perfect cover.

November Road is billed “a novel” but it will be widely praised in crime fiction circles because of Guidry’s mobbish backstory and also because there are many chapters told from the point of view from the cold-hearted hitman (what other kind is there?), Paul Barone. November Road follows Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone, which won an Edgar Award, and that’s another reason for the crime fiction cred (which is completely justified).

But November Road is a mood piece, too. Berney lets us get to know Charlotte and Guidry so well that when they meet we can feel the moment—and all the believable exchanges that follow. Charlotte’s two children, Joan and Rosemary, are fully realized too, hardly afterthoughts or clichés in any way.

Guidry is contemplating an escape to Vietnam, of all places. He has connections in Las Vegas he needs to locate and he convinces Charlotte to come along for the ride; he can help her find the needed wheels to reach California.

Berney shifts gears from contemplative Sunday drive to full-throttle suspense with ease. We know the hit man is coming. We have a hunch that things will get all tangled up in Las Vegas. But as he did with The Long and Faraway Gone, Berney’s main focus is the people and the impact of what they have endured on their souls. Berney works in Coleridge and Keats, Bob Dylan and John Milton. He even works in “The Wizard of Oz,” which isn’t that unusual given the kids in tow, and then finds a way to stage a scene on a boat on Lake Mead with the actor Ray Bolger, without making the coincidence seem corny or forced. It’s one of the book’s most moving scenes.

In the end, November Road is a search for identity amid the jagged edges of the nation’s frayed, post-assassination psyche. Charlotte has a “good feeling” about mobster Guidry, though at first she knows nothing of his true loyalties. And “if Charlotte was going to make the most of her one and only life, if she was going to help Rosemary and Joan do the same, she’d need to seize every opportunity, don’t think twice.” (A reference to the Dylan song.)  And Guidry, who knows a thing or two about poetry, has a deep exchange of words with a driver named Leo, who is taking Guidry and Charlotte and the girls back from Lake Mead. Guidry says: “A man finds himself in a dark wood. And then he finds himself in a different, even darker wood. He becomes exasperated with the hand of fate.”

Guidry admits he has only read Milton and Dante enough “to fake it” and there’s a fine exchange between Guidry and Leo, who clearly is underplaying his understanding of how the world works until he drops this little bit of insight: “With every decision we create a new future,” he says. “We destroy all other futures.”

Gulp. A few weeks after the Kennedy assassination, that’s a heck of a summary of the time. There is no straightforward path. Only one day at a time, one mile at time, one encounter at a time.

Yeah, don’t think twice, just take November Road out for a spin. Go for the ride but leave your tight little genre expectations at home.