An­tic­i­pa­tion is high for Ber­ney’s new fic­tion ‘Novem­ber Road’

Shanghai Daily - - BOOKS - Hil­lel Italie

For crime writer and Ok­la­homa na­tive Lou Ber­ney, there’s some­thing spe­cial about the drive out West. “I love that stretch of I-40, what used to be High­way 66, from Ok­la­homa City to Ari­zona,” he said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view.

“I re­mem­ber hear­ing about the painted desert when I was a kid, and think­ing, ‘Oh my god, there’s a painted desert some­where!’ It was so mag­i­cal. The pet­ri­fied for­est. It had this myth for me.”

Peo­ple travel in Ber­ney’s books, al­though not al­ways be­cause they want to do so.

“Novem­ber Road,” his new novel, is set in 1963. It tells of an Ok­la­homa woman on the run from her hus­band, an un­der­ling to New Or­leans-based mob­ster Car­los Mar­cello, who is try­ing to make him­self van­ish in the wake of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion. They’re both head­ing West, and en­counter each other in Las Ve­gas, where JFK was known to spend some free time.

The book is drawn in part from the au­thor’s life: Ber­ney, 54, had of­ten won­dered what might have hap­pened had his mother, whom he calls the “most fe­ro­ciously in­tel­li­gent woman” he ever knew, left his al­co­holic fa­ther.

“What if?” says Ber­ney, drink­ing cof­fee at a Man­hat­tan cafe on a warm fall af­ter­noon. “What if my mother had made a dif­fer­ent choice at some point in her life?”

“Novem­ber Road” is a story of one woman’s dream for a bet­ter life and a tour of the grim un­der­side of Amer­i­can life that the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion made un­avoid­able, as if the whole coun­try was trapped in­side a crime novel. An­tic­i­pa­tion is strong, with “The Wash­ing­ton Post” call­ing “Novem­ber Road” one of the “most dis­tinc­tive, un­ex­pected crime nov­els of re­cent years” and Kirkus prais­ing how it “bril­liantly re­flects th­ese times of both dis­il­lu­sion­ment and hope.”

The new book fol­lows what was his most ac­claimed work, “The Long and Far­away Gone,” a thriller set in Ok­la­homa that won an Edgar Award in 2016 for best crime novel. His pre­vi­ous books in­clude the Edgar-nom­i­nated “Whiplash River” and “Gut­shot Straight.”

Ber­ney, who teaches in the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram at the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa, was born a year af­ter Kennedy’s death, but lived in a fam­ily caught up in JFK’s myth.

On fam­ily trips through neigh­bor­ing Texas, his fa­ther would drive through Dealey Plaza in Dal­las and point to the win­dows where Lee Har­vey Oswald fired from. His mother skipped work to see one of JFK’s speeches.

The Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion has long been an ob­ses­sion for fic­tion writ­ers, from Don DeLillo and “Libra” to Stephen King and “11/22/63.”

Nov­els also have been a good medium for spec­u­la­tion about who might have killed him. Charles McCarry’s clas­sic “The Tears of Au­tumn” pins it on the Viet­namese, a re­sponse to the US-backed coup against the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Ngo Dinh Diem, three weeks be­fore Kennedy’s death. Ber­ney thinks Mar­cello, sus­pected by some as­sas­si­na­tion the­o­rists, an ideal cul­prit.

“He’s the one mob­ster no one knew about at the time,” he says.

“If any­body could get away with this, I thought it would be Mar­cello. There was a sign in his of­fice that read ‘Three can keep a se­cret if two are dead.’”

Ber­ney cites Kate Atkin­son, El­more Leonard and Me­gan Ab­bott as in­flu­ences, but he didn’t be­gin as a crime novelist.

He stud­ied com­mu­ni­ca­tions and jour­nal­ism at Loy­ola Uni­ver­sity and cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst, from which he re­ceived an MFA. He re­mem­bered that while in grad­u­ate school a pro­fes­sor saw him with a Leonard novel and said, “Don’t read that trash.” He now won­ders how much time he might have saved had the pro­fes­sor en­cour­aged him.

Ber­ney re­ceived early lit­er­ary ac­claim. His first book, “The Road to Bobby Joe and Other Sto­ries,” came out in 1991 and brought him praise from “The New York Times” as a writer of “tremen­dous range, one whose char­ac­ters — a Lao­tian bus­boy, an ag­ing wino, a rock band’s groupie — of­ten walk them­selves up to the edge of a moral abyss.”

But his next pub­li­ca­tion didn’t come for nearly two decades. He spent four years work­ing on a novel and couldn’t find a pub­lisher. He spent an­other three years on a dif­fer­ent novel and tried writ­ing screen­plays. No luck.

He thought him­self a fail­ure and was ready to give up, when he de­cided to try one last time and wrote “Gut­shot Straight,” about a mob­ster who leaves a Cal­i­for­nia pri­son and soon finds him­self in new kinds of trou­ble.

“It was like ‘I have noth­ing to lose at this point,’” he said of the book, which came out in 2010. “I want to write some­thing that’s go­ing to be fun to write and also will con­nect to me as a reader: I want to write some­thing I want to read. I think that was, for me, the switch go­ing off, be­cause I loved crime fic­tion.”

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