Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone was an amazing surprise for me in 2017, so when I heard he had a new book coming out this year, I immediately made it a priority. Of course, I make lots of books a “priority”—that’s how I ended up with 266 unread books in my possession. I always have good intentions, but what matters, of course, is follow through, and in the case of Berney’s latest, November Road, I’m happy to say that I, in the parlance of my Southern friends, “got her done.” Ew.
Anyway, the book! The year is 1963. Frank Guidry works for the mob in New Orleans. Charlotte is a housewife in Woodrow, Oklahoma, with two daughters and an alcoholic husband who has trouble holding down a steady job. For Frank, the Kennedy assassination sets into motion a chain of events that send him on the run. For Charlotte, the meaninglessness of such a momentous event to her everyday life makes her realize that something has got to change, so she takes her two girls, Joan, 8, and Rosemary, 7, and hits the road for California. Frank and Charlotte’s paths cross in New Mexico after Charlotte’s car goes into a ditch. They wind up staying at the same hotel, and Frank, realizing that a man traveling with a wife and two daughters is far less suspicious than a man traveling alone, begins to charm Charlotte and the girls. Together, the four of them head west. On their trail is hitman Phil Barone.
The thing is, up to a point, this is a predictable story. You know Frank and Charlotte are going to fall for each other. You know Barone will catch up with them eventually. You know Charlotte will figure out that Frank isn’t the person he pretends to be. But the beautiful thing about this book is that the characters don’t go in exactly the direction you think, and that’s not because Berney throws in a big plot twist at the end. See, November Road is the kind of novel that you can hold up as a fine example of the fact that in the very best fiction, the characters drive the plot, rather than existing in service to it. Frank, Charlotte, and Barone are so well developed that you really want them all to come out ahead. Even Joan and Rosemary come across as two real little people rather than plot devices or clichés. In fact, nothing in this story is cliché, when it so, so easily could have veered that way. Another terrific thing is the way Berney uses details specific to the time period, like the Kennedy assassination and certain music, like Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” without being heavy-handed like, “It’s 1963! Huge turning point for America!” Instead, he shows how these things matter to the characters, who are having their own huge turning points that really have nothing (and then also, in some ways, everything) to do with current and coming world events.
Lately I feel that the highest praise I can offer a book is to say it’s worth re-reading. Both November Road and The Long and Faraway Gone earn this praise. Maybe it’s a phase I’m going through, but I follow so many publishers and bloggers, and I have started to feel more than overwhelmed by what’s NEW, NEW, NEW all the time. Everyone’s hyping the same books, and they come and go so quickly. I’ve done more re-reading this year than I have in a long time, and it feels good. It feels much better than trying to keep up with new releases and books longlisted or shortlisted for this or that prize that seem like the judges simply raced through and didn’t notice the smoke and mirrors. Forget those books. Read Lou Berney. Read him twice. You won’t be sorry.