Sometimes you find yourself so easily drawn into the story and the characters that you never even stop to think whether the events on the page are close to reality (if that’s a thing that matters to you).
Writing recently in The New Yorker, John Lanchester talked about the “reader’s decision to put the argumentative, quibbling part of his mind into neutral and go along for the narrative ride.”
Wrote Lanchester: “The suspension is voluntary, though not necessarily conscious; it’s not as if you reach up and toggle a setting in your brain. Rather, as readers, we usually fight the story a little bit at the beginning, while we’re getting our ear in; then we submit, and are carried along by the flow, unless something happens to jolt us out of it.” (Ironically, Lanchester was making a case what gives grounding to Lee Child’s cartoony, over-the-top Jack Reacher; Lanchester made some great points.)
With Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone, I never looked back. I never quibbled. I never fought the story.
I’m not alone. The novel won the 2016 Edgar Award for Best Paperback original and picked up a slew of other awards including the Barry, Macavity and Anthony.
This is “a novel.” It’s not billed as “a mystery” despite the genre-specific awards and even though the arcs of the two principal characters involve a haunting search for what happened? smack up alongside who done it?
And, most of all, why?
Two events drive the story, based on real life stories from Berney’s home state of Oklahoma (where he teaches writing at the university level). In real life, the events were separated by a few years. In the book, the events are separated by a month. The first involves the brutal killing of six movie-theater employees. The second involves the disappearance of a teenage girl from the annual state fair.
In the novel, neither case was ever solved. The Long and Faraway Gone becomes a parallel journey for Wyatt, who survived the movie theater massacre, and Julianna, whose sister Genevieve was the one who vanished, as they try to uncover answers to the questions that haunt them. They both live in a kind of purgatory, unable to come to grips with their current life until they answer the hidden questions from the past.
Wyatt returns to Oklahoma from out of state. He’s a private eye who gets dispatched on a case, helping the owner of a music club who believes she’s being harassed. Wyatt would rather not go back to Oklahoma. “That was Wyatt’s philosophy when it came to the past: Stay out of it. By doing so he had lived a happy live. A life undrowned, unbroken on the rocks, unswept toward an empty horizon.” But Wyatt can’t help himself and soon finds himself back swimming in the sea of memories, with its “riptide.”
Berney alternates between the two stories, giving us glimpses of the events from a variety of perspectives. Julianna is always looking, always searching and always thinking about how to figure out what happened to her sister. She is keenly aware of the “landscape of memory” and how events from the past come in and out of focus. “Sometimes the near seemed far, far away,” she thinks, “and the faraway was right beneath your feet.” Berney shows us the ever-changing city landscape, and its ongoing “makeover,” which further threatens the ability to remember places and events. Both Wyatt and Juliana take notes on these changes.
I fully expected Wyatt and Juliana to meet up and, perhaps, help each other toward some Big Finish of self-discovery and cymbal-crashing ta-da. Well, they do meet. (In clever fashion.) But, adding to the plausibility factor in my mind, there is no resulting magical spark and big race to the finish. The story stays within itself.
Both Wyatt and Juliana are surrounded by a rich cast of characters, including family and co-workers and old friends. Wyatt’s official reason to be in Oklahoma City gives him time around a familiar, old-haunt nightclub and Berney takes full advantage of the opportunity for Wyatt to reminisce about 1980’s rock bands. Berney conjures a few acts of his own, including a band named (hilariously) The Barking Johnsons.
Berney is more interested in the haunting nature of the search than the big moment, although resolution waits. There’s a memorable scene at the Murrah Building memorial as Wyatt contemplates the thin lines of fate that can change everything. One recurring motifs—a Born in the U.S.A T-shirt, Stars and Stripes Park—suggest Wyatt and Julianna’s excavation through memories is a universal, all-American story. (Hello, 9-11, the Murrah Building, Pearl Harbor…)
The Long and Faraway Gone also suggests you can lose yourself in your memories. And, if you look hard enough, you can find yourself, too.