On the November road

November Road a novel by Lou BerneyLou Berney is the award-winning author of The Long and Faraway Gone, the well-loved novel that won an Edgar Award in 2016 for Best Paperback Original. Now we have his newest book to enjoy, a fast-paced crime novel that employs the 1963 Kennedy assassination as a key plot element. The story is so well imagined it made me pause for a second, wondering, “Could something like this be what happened on November 22, 1963?” That said, November Road is not a conspiracy theory novel, rather a terrific story that uses the historic tragedy as the purpose and backdrop of its intelligent plot.

The lead character is Frank Guidry, a top guy in Carlos Marcello’s crime network rooted in New Orleans. He leads a good life, commanding what he wants. Indeed, he’s on top of the world in power and luxury, but all that breaks apart when Guidry walks into a room and sees TV news broadcasting President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. At that moment, he realizes he’s been unwittingly involved in the attack on the president. Just a few days earlier, Marcello ordered Guidry to drop off a getaway car near Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was shot. It’s too much of a coincidence, especially considering Jack and Bobby Kennedy had the Senate interrogate Marcello – and then, a couple of years later, they tried to deport him. Clearly, the mob boss had had enough.

What follows is a dramatic and intense escape story as Guidry runs for his life. He knows Marcello will take out anyone he involved in this national tragedy to keep himself clean. Guidry heads west, posing as Frank Wainwright, an insurance agent in a bad-fitting hounds tooth sports coat and gray wool fedora. He travels through Texas, New Mexico and Nevada, dodging the killer Marcello has put on his tail, a ruthless hit man who treats any living thing as if it’s disposable furniture.  In the background, televisions broadcast ongoing coverage of the Kennedy funeral, from Ruby shooting Oswald to Jackie’s shrouded face following her husband’s coffin.

The chase is vividly alive on the page, written in a breezy narrative style that delivers a tightly packed drama in staccato sentences. Intermingled are Guidry’s more descriptive inner thoughts. They pour across the page, providing worried calculations that propel the narrative and keep us guessing — right along with Guidry — about what Marcello and his handler Seraphine are up to.

“He slept fitfully. Every time he started to drift off, a persistent worry tapped him on the shoulder and drew him back. What if he was wrong? What if Seraphine’s men hadn’t been fooled in Goodnight? What if they knew he was on 66, headed west? What if they were closing in on him right this minute, slowly but surely?”

Meanwhile, in Woodrow, Oklahoma, a young wife and mother — Charlotte Roy — flees her drunk husband and oppressive family life with her two daughters and their dog. When her car breaks down on the highway, she finds her way into a small town where a car mechanic agrees to fix the problem. Guidry becomes her White Knight, albeit a conniving knight, bribing the mechanic to create problems with Charlotte’s car so he can offer her a ride. She’s his perfect cover, giving Guidry the appearance of a married man with kids traveling the highway.

Berney pens historic atmosphere into this winning crime novel not only with the assassination but also with Charlotte, well portrayed as a dissatisfied woman in the 1960’s wanting more for her life than housework. Her determination to be a photographer provides female humanity and vulnerability that’s very real for the time period, as she snaps photos with a Kodak Brownie Cresta, working on her dream even as her life is falling apart.

What happens to Guidry and Charlotte in the end involves romance, run-ins with that ruthless hit man, bargaining with a Las Vegas money-maker and a bold face-off with Marcello himself. In the last chapter, Berney jumps us far ahead into the future, 40 years later, with Charlotte’s daughters remembering that week they were stranded in New Mexico and a Good Samaritan gave them a ride. It was a time when you could trust people on the road, and when America’s history and their lives changed forever.

November Roadpublished by William Morrow, is an intelligent and gripping crime novel to be released this week.

A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.

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