It is a moment in history we return to again and again: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Entire libraries have been filled with volumes generated by this single event, an event that novelist Don DeLillo called “an aberration in the heartland of the real.” These include official reports, personal reminiscences and all manner of conspiracy theories, not to mention a substantial amount of fiction. Novelists, like journalists and historians, have felt compelled to confront and come to terms with an act so consequential that its mysteries continue to trouble the American psyche more than 50 years later.
The most prominent of these novelists is DeLillo, whose magisterial “Libra” traces the tragic arc of Lee Harvey Oswald’s sad and angry life. “American Tabloid,” by James Ellroy, places the assassination at the center of an epic portrait of crime and endemic corruption, while Stephen King’s “11/22/63” is an impassioned fantasy about a time traveler who hopes to prevent the assassination to set the future on a saner, less destructive path. Lou Berney’s “November Road” is the latest novel to explore this explosive material, and the result is one of the most distinctive, unexpected crime novels of recent years.
Berney’s previous work, including the Edgar Award-winning “The Long and Faraway Gone,” bears comparison to the late Elmore Leonard. “November Road” is his first attempt at historical fiction, and it is impressive. The narrative begins in New Orleans on the eve of the assassination. Right away, Berney resolves one of history’s lingering questions: Who, among many possible suspects, ordered Kennedy’s death? In Berney’s version of events, the culprit is New Orleans mob boss Carlo Marcello, longtime enemy of both John and Robert Kennedy. Having established this basic scenario, Berney sets in motion the three narrative threads that will dominate the novel.
The first concerns Frank Guidry, high-ranking operative in the Marcello organization. Guidry is a cheerfully amoral grifter who treats women as disposable conveniences and casually betrays a friend to certain death for a momentary advantage. Shortly before the assassination, Guidry had been given a seemingly innocuous task: delivering a getaway car to a lot near Dealey Plaza in Dallas. When news of the assassination reaches him, he realizes that he is, however unintentionally, complicit in the death of a president, and that he has become a dangerous loose end. When other such loose ends begin dying around him, he leaves his old life behind, adopts a new identity and hits the road.
At the same time, a very different scenario plays out in the small town of Woodrow, Okla. Charlotte Roy is a young mother of two married to an irresponsible alcoholic. As cataclysmic events unfold in the wider world, she comes to a decision that is reckless, impulsive and ultimately correct. Along with her daughters, her minuscule savings and a cheap camera that will become her lifeline to the world, she too leaves her old life behind, heading toward a future she cannot yet envision.
The third leg of the narrative belongs to a professional hit man known only as Barone, whose primary job is cleaning up the Marcello family’s more spectacular messes. He does so with typical efficiency until only one loose end remains: Frank Guidry. Following instructions, he picks up Guidry’s trail and sets off in pursuit.
What follows is both a road novel and a first-rate thriller in which Barone’s relentless pursuit stretches from New Orleans to Las Vegas, leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. Most centrally, it is — or eventually becomes — a surprising but credible love story, as a chance encounter between Guidry and Charlotte and her children assumes unexpected dimensions. They meet on the road, and Guidry cynically attaches himself to them, using them as a form of protective camouflage. Gradually, he falls into the rhythms and routines of Charlotte and her daughters and finds himself wishing for something he has never known and never wanted: a family.
The evolving relationship between Guidry and Charlotte forms the emotional centerpiece of the book, and Berney handles it all with delicacy and restraint. Ultimately, the novel stands or falls on Berney’s ability to convince us that an amoral criminal is capable of changing so completely. “November Road” could easily have descended into sentimental cliches, but — thanks largely to the character of Charlotte — it never does. Charlotte, who is based in part on Berney’s own mother, is an extraordinary woman just beginning to discover her own capabilities. Faced with a series of debilitating crises, she persists, moving steadily forward toward a larger, more meaningful life. The result is a quietly moving evocation of public and private trauma, of individuals searching for new lives in a radically altered world. This is Berney’s best book to date. It deserves the wide, appreciative readership it seems likely to find.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Lou Berney
William Morrow. 320 pp. $26.99.