Review: November Road, by Lou Berney
HarperCollins, 2018. 299 pp. $27
Toward the end of this ingenious, heart-stopping thriller, one character says, “With every decision we create a new future,” and destroy all others. It’s the perfect motto for November Road, whose protagonist finds the future narrowing hour by hour, like the short end of a funnel, no matter what decisions he makes.
It’s November 1963. Frank Guidry is a midlevel New Orleans mafioso, fortunate to have the ear of big boss Carlos Marcello and the charm and horse sense to do the right favors for the right people. But when Frank hears that President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas, he wastes no time getting out of New Orleans, hoping to outrun Marcello’s long arm.
How Frank intuits this is a simple, elegant proof, worthy of Euclid — and Berney, like his protagonist, wastes no words explaining. Frank has just ferried a car to Dallas and back; on the return trip, the trunk contained a duffel bag in which he found a high-powered rifle, broken into parts, and shell casings. From the news reports, Frank supposes that nobody but a professional could have hit a moving target so accurately at that range. Conclusion: Marcello masterminded the assassination, and as an accessory, Frank Guidry must be next on the hit list, because of what he knows.
But Marcello didn’t get where he is by sitting still, so he sends Paul Barone, a cold, tireless killer, to track Frank down. Frank doesn’t know who’s after him, only that whoever it is seems unshakable. And as the net draws closer, the fox devises a way to throw the hounds off the scent: In New Mexico, he eases himself into the path of Charlotte, a woman who’s just left her drunken husband and has two young daughters in tow. Now Frank looks like a family man, much less remarkable to gas station attendants, lunch-counter waitresses, or motel clerks, the people whom anyone following him will interrogate.
But the reader knows what Frank doesn’t — that he’ll fall for Charlotte and the girls, which will add a complication, for he’s never thought of anyone except himself before. Further, to keep up appearances, he’ll have to humor their whims, when speed is of the essence, and though the little girls are extraordinarily well behaved, Charlotte must keep them entertained on the long drive. She thinks she’s going to Los Angeles, where her aunt lives, but Frank is bound for Las Vegas, where he hopes one of Marcello’s rivals will help him. How Frank balances all this makes for a spellbinding story; his secrets, though hidden temporarily, won’t stay that way forever, and Paul Barone is a more than worthy opponent. Sooner or later, all elements must meet.
Berney’s prose, vivid without calling attention to itself, colors in the gangland world and all it touches:
The west bank of the Mississippi, just across the river from New Orleans, was a dirty strip of scrapyards, body shops, and lopsided tenement buildings, the wood rotting off them. The Wank, people called it. Barone understood why. The smell was something else. A couple of refineries fired night and day, a burning funk that stuck to your clothes and skin. Ships dumped their garbage on the New Orleans side, and it washed up here. Dead fish, too, the ones even the gulls wouldn’t touch.
The only place where Berney loses me is Charlotte’s decision to leave her husband for who knows where; the Los Angeles aunt is an afterthought, and a weak one, given that the two haven’t spoken in years. Charlotte has spent her life making circumstances work for other people, and though she’s tired of doing so for her deadbeat husband — and equally tired of being spoken to as a second-class citizen because she’s female — running out is too great a leap for her. No one in her Oklahoma town, where everyone knows everyone else, gets divorced, and nobody just ups and leaves anything or anyone. To hit the road with two vulnerable children and an epileptic dog (a nice touch) makes no sense to me.
I’m also not sure that Frank, despite his apparently exceptional powers of seduction, would find her such an easy conquest. To his credit, Berney gives her intelligence and humor, and those qualities are what draw Frank, not her prettiness. But I could have more easily seen her succumb once, only to pull back, which would have added more sexual tension while complicating the choreography of the later chapters.
Even so, November Road is still a superb thriller. Charlotte has the journey of her life; many readers will enjoy going along for the ride.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.