Thursday, October 4, 2018

November Road by Lou Berney: Reading Room Review

Tough, gritty, harsh, unyielding with an unexpected soft spot.  This describes November Road, Lou Berney's new novel set in 1963 during the seismic jolt of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November of that year.  This novel is quite different from Berney's award-winning The Long and Faraway Gone, which was a favorite read of mine, but November Road stands out on its own as another successful creation from the aptly talented pen of this author.  Expect more awards to follow.  Berney's unembellished writing style and his ability to move a story along smoothly over a rough terrain of events and deeply flawed characters results in a story that is raw and real and wholly engaging.

Frank Guidry has lived a life of uncompromising realities, the rules of being a top operator in Carlos Marcello's New Orleans based mob being clear and non-negotiable.  No attachments, no emotion, and never let your guard down.  Staying alive and prosperous was a matter of never deviating from the simple rules of doing a job under constant scrutiny.  At thirty-seven, Frank has become a big man around New Orleans, with his tailored suits and good looks and charm, and he has proved himself a valuable asset to Carlos.  He's living large and enjoying the benefits of good music, good food, a swanky apartment, and one-night stands.  When asked to take a powder-blue Cadillac to a parking garage in Dallas two weeks before JFK is assassinated, Frank thinks nothing of it.  But, when the President is assassinated and Frank is asked to dispose of that same car in Houston, and when people working for Carlos that know too much about Carlos' ties to events in Dallas start dying, Frank becomes aware that everyone has an expiration date in the mob.  Fearing that his usefulness to Carlos will be up after he disposes of the Cadillac, Frank goes on the run after dumping the car.  He hopes to find protection from a Las Vegas mob boss who hates Carlos, if Frank can stay alive long enough to reach Vegas.

Charlotte Roy is an Oklahoma housewife with two daughters, ages seven and eight.  Her husband is a drunk, who has difficulty holding onto a job and makes paying the bills a major challenge, even with Charlotte working.  Dooley is not violent, but his inability to change and the stifling existence Charlotte is living in the small Oklahoma town causes her to make a bold decision for the future of herself and her daughters.  Mother and daughters pack up and leave the small town and small mindedness of Oklahoma behind for Los Angles and a brighter, more promising future. 

So, Frank and Charlotte are both on the run for their lives.  Frank, quite literally to prevent his death.  Charlotte to pursue a better life for herself and her girls. There could be no greater disparity between the two.  Frank is a big city player used to living hard and fast and Charlotte a small-town girl who has lived her whole life playing it safe and keeping the peace.  Their meeting and becoming friendly is an odds that Vegas would seriously bet against.  But, meet they do, after Charlotte's car breaks down and they end up at the same hotel in New Mexico.  And, as only fate and Lou Berney's storytelling could produce, Charlotte and Frank develop a mutual interest and purpose, getting to their final destinations with each other's help.   Frank poses as an insurance salesman to gain Charlotte’s trust and offers her a much-needed ride to continue her journey.  With Charlotte and her girls in tow, Frank gains a cover as a family man in his race across the Southwest.  What Frank doesn't anticipate is that he will come to like being the man in the charade.

Meanwhile, Carlos and his right-hand woman, Seraphine, are pulling out all the stops to prevent Frank's reaching a safe haven.  Their most powerful and relentless weapon is Paul Barone, Carlos' number one hitman and dogged pursuer of his targets.  Through Barone, more than any other character, Berney shows readers the complexity of the human mind and corresponding actions.  Barone is a bad guy, a badass, a nonredeemable killer who doesn't consider collateral damage a problem.  However, it is through his employment of a young, teenage black boy as a driver that we see a kind of warped civility and concern for others in Barone.  Whenever there is a refusal of service or accommodation for Theodore, Barone bristles and considers the person rejecting his young friend because of his color a worthless piece of dog doo.  However, Barone is as hard as they come in achieving a 100% success rate, and he doesn’t intend to lose the battle between Frank and himself.

Paul Barone leaves a blazing trail of blood and death in his chase to complete his mission to kill Frank Guidry.  The intensity and desperation of the chase has the reader flying through the pages in a need to know who survives and who doesn’t, who gets a second chance, if anyone.  This tale is so much more complex than a hitman on the hunt for his target.  The characters are all capable of surprising you, and the twists in the story line will cause an audible gasp.  Berney nails the history and setting of 1963, taking those of us who lived it back to a watershed moment.  As a screen writer, Lou Berney has a talent for dialogue, too, and some of the best comes from secondary characters, showing just how much attention to detail there is in this story.  When I read The Long and Faraway Gone by this author, I knew a special talent had arrived.  November Road solidifies Lou Berney’s place as a brilliant storyteller whose ability to examine the human condition is second to none.