It can be pretty hard to find something to read these days. Not because there’s a dearth of quality novels being put out, but because of the opposite. We’re being inundated with great stories, not to even mention the centuries of books already out there waiting to be read. So, it can become necessary to find people in the world whose tastes you can trust, and whose recommendations can be considered pretty solid. And weirdly enough, or perhaps not weirdly at all, one of the people in the world I’ve come to trust the most when it comes to new novels is none other than the master of horror himself, Stephen King. I talk about King’s novels occasionally on this site, but I’ve actually picked up quite a few novels from other authors based on his recommendations. His Twitter account is often full of really solid book recommendations, and I do think it’s pretty cool that someone so well-established has a habit of giving a spotlight to some newer authors who are trying to get their work out there. Honestly, I can’t think of a single book that I’ve picked up based on King’s recommendation that I haven’t been happy with. But the latest book that I’ve read based on his Twitter is perhaps the best one I’ve ever given a shot. I had heard a bit about Lou Berney’s November Road over the last few months, but it was King’s stamp of approval that really pushed it over the edge for me, leading me to pick it up. And, I’m so glad I did, because this may be my favorite book of the year.
November Road is a sprawling crime story set directly following the assassination of President John F Kennedy. We follow a man named Frank Guidry, a criminal who is leading a pretty great life in New Orleans while working for a mob boss named Carlos Marcello. However, he starts to get a little worried after the assassination, because certain things have led him to wonder if maybe Carlos and their entire criminal organization may have been involved. And, to make things scarier, Guidry recently placed a get-away car in Dallas, unaware of what purpose it would serve. He becomes convinced that Carlos is killing every member of the organization that knew anything about the assassination, and decides he needs to flee before he himself gets caught. He’s sure that Carlos has sent someone to kill him, and decides that his only course of action is to head to Las Vegas to meet with a rival crime boss he’s acquaintances with named Ed Zingel, who hates Carlos. Unfortunately, Guidry’s suspicions are correct. Carlos is trying to kill him, and has sent a very accomplished killer called Barone to track Frank down.
So, Frank needs something to help him blend into the American West. And, he finds that in a woman named Charlotte and her two daughters. Charlotte has just left her alcoholic husband and is on a mad-dash to California, trying to figure out who she actually is for the first time in her life, while having no real idea how to survive on her own. And, while stranded in a small town after wrecking her car, she encounters Frank. He introduces himself as Frank Wainwright, a kindly insurance salesman who starts to befriend her and the girls while they’re trapped in the same motel. And, after gaining their trust, he offers to drive them to Las Vegas where his kind friend Ed could give them a car to continue their progress. Frank, Charlotte, and the kids then start heading to Las Vegas, successfully dodging all the other criminals who are hunting him, while Frank and Charlotte start to fall for each other. Frank starts to lose his cool, wondering if he should throw his old way of life behind and become a husband and father, or if his mere presence would just draw death and destruction upon this kind family, while Charlotte questions everything and worries that she still hasn’t found her true purpose. And everything comes to a head in Las Vegas, all the various plot-lines colliding into a perfect catastrophe.
I really loved this novel. It’s an enthralling read, and once it gets going it’s almost impossible to put it down. I’ve never read anything from Lou Berney before, and as soon as I was done with this book I put damn near everything he’s ever written on my wishlist, waiting to give them a shot. Because this book is really something special. It’s quick, it’s clever, and it’s kind of everything I’m looking for when it comes to a crime novel. The weird little twinge of conspiracy coming along with the Kennedy Assassination was a welcome addition to what would have been an incredible little crime thriller on its own. Berney works up a set of wonderful characters and puts them all on a collision course with each other, watching as they travel across a confused and heart-broken country, leading to one of the most satisfying climaxes I’ve read in years. I’ve spoken before about my love for A Confederacy of Dunces, and the way that it functions like a clock, all sorts of elements perfectly balanced to come together in the most perfect way possible. And I kind of get the same feeling from this novel, just in a crime mode instead of a humorous one. It’s just a hell of a good read.
And, one of the things I felt myself getting most drawn up in was the way Berney portrayed his two protagonists. I was a little surprised when first starting this novel that Frank Guiry’s story was being given equal attention to Charlotte’s. Once the two finally came into contact and linked up, it made it all clear, and I then grew to really appreciate the chapters about her in her small town, giving us a clear idea why she would want to run away. Because this whole book is about running away. We all run into occasions in our life where it seems like we just can’t take it anymore, and the fantasy of just escaping and leaving all of your woes behind becomes incredibly appealing. Which is what we get from both Frank and Charlotte. They’ve both reached the apparent end of their lives, and have decided to do something drastic to change things. Frank literally could be killed, and Charlotte has become convinced that if she stays in her life she’ll just become a bitter and miserable person, living out the rest of her days in depression. And, in their mission to flee their old lives, they briefly become intertwined, wondering if maybe they could find some way to fix their problems together. Things don’t work out, as you’ll learn if you pick the novel up, but the idea that two people from completely different worlds can come together while running away is a really beautiful sentiment, and one that pushed this book so high in my esteem.
November Road was written by Lou Berny, 2018.
Categories: Page Turners