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.

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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.

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