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by Lou Berney
William Morrow, October 2018
320 pages
ISBN: 0062663844

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

NOVEMBER ROAD is listed as "literary fiction," a category I tend to approach very warily. Caution was wholly unnecessary this time, however, as the novel is "literary" in the sense that is written with grace, sustains a mood and evokes emotions of some depth, and pays appropriate, if unobtrusive, respect to the genre that gave it rise.

The November in question is the one in 1963, when John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. There was a time when almost any American you asked could tell you where they were when they heard the news, but it all happened fifty-five years ago and has now slipped firmly into the past, eclipsed to some degree by later and even more horrific events. So NOVEMBER ROAD is technically an historical novel. But the assassination is still a matter of considerable contention among conspiracy enthusiasts, who debate whether Castro, the FBI, or the Mob was responsible for the act. All are agreed on one thing, however, and that is that Lee Harvey Oswald, if he acted at all, did not act alone. Berney is no conspiracy buff nor is this a conspiracy novel. He settles on the Mob as the culprit as his premise and then drops the whole question to pursue the consequences on one minor mobster peripherally involved and doomed by what he knows.

He is Frank Guidry, from New Orleans, a fixer for mob boss Carlos Marcello, who had him stash a getaway car near Dealey Plaza. That was Guidry's sole involvement in the assassination and it was an unwitting one. But he is no fool, and Carlos knows it. It takes him a little while to accept the truth, but Frank comes to the realization that he will have to be permanently removed just in case. Following a quick act of betrayal and a sordid, if accomplished, sexual encounter, both of which are there to establish the base line of his character, he flies from New Orleans for Texas, as ordered by Carlos, but once there he heads out of town, only hours ahead of the hit man he knows in his heart is following him. If he had known that the best in the trade, a man named Barone, is after him, he would have moved even faster.

At just about the same moment, as Kennedy's coffin is proceeding across Washington, Charlotte Moore, mother of two and married to a man who drinks too much and has a strong suit in self pity, comes to the conclusion that she can no longer bear her life in her small Oklahoma town. Berney brilliantly details the cumulation of tiny events that sends her, her two little girls, and their epileptic dog on the road in the clapped-out family car, headed nowhere in particular but anywhere but there. Both she and Frank are fugitives from what seemed to be their inescapable fates, and it is only a matter of time until they meet.

And meet, of course, they do, Frank manipulating events so that he can travel as the head of a small family in order to outwit any pursuers. Across the US they go, headed for Vegas and then the coast, dogged by a seemingly inescapable fate that only Frank is aware of and gently falling in love. The atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of noir films of the 40s - small and relatively innocent folk doomed by larger forces over which they have no control and little knowledge. Berney's control over his material is, however, total and impeccable. The book is next to impossible to put down, and I found it difficult to turn my gaze away from the impending tragedy looming at the end of the road.

But NOVEMBER ROAD is not set in the 40s. It is twenty years later, in the 60s, that pivotal decade in modern American history, when the assassination of President Kennedy seemed to usher in a decade of profound and wrenching social change. Frank, Charlotte, the children, and perhaps even the mob sit on the cusp of past and future and so the end is perhaps not quite what you might expect. It is moving, heart-breaking, and utterly satisfying, as is the book itself. Don't miss it.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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