In his Edgar-winning thriller The Long and Faraway Road, Lou Berney mined actual crimes from his Oklahoma childhood. In November Road the plot arcs off of a historical act that looms large within the national psyche—the assassination of JFK—to tell the deftly written story of two disparate characters who hit the road, trying to flee their respective pasts. They ultimately become travel companions, with a professional killer on their trail.
Seemingly slick Frank Guidry, a New Orleans-based fixer for mobster Carlos Marcello, recognizes he’s in danger as soon as he hears about the JFK takedown. For it was Guidry who, on assignment, went to Dallas to leave a sky blue Eldorado parked just two blocks from Dealey Plaza. Because the Kennedy brothers were sworn enemies of Marcello, Guidry realizes that the Eldorado was in fact the getaway car for JFK’s assassin, which makes Guidry a loose end that must be tied up. So Guidry takes flight. (JFK assassination scholars will recognize Marcello as one of the leading actual suspects in the JFK whodunit roll call.)
Simultaneously, an Oklahoma housewife named Charlotte decides to bail on her dead-end marriage to a boozer. With $900, two young daughters, and a dog named Lucky, she sets out for California.
The story unfolds in the third person, but Guidry is such a self-assured writer that he’s easily able to convey the characters’ differences within the narrative style. The sections devoted to Guidry are breezy and hip. Charlotte’s story unfolds more formally. The two approaches meet and mingle, with effective subtlety, when the characters hook up.
Car problems lead to Charlotte’s encounter with Guidry, who has assumed a false identity as an insurance salesman—the better to convince her to travel with him. And the better to elude any would-be hired guns. (Who would suspect a family man of consorting with mobsters?)
The ensuing road trip takes in Route 66, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, tunes of the day played over AM radio, and roadside meals of Vienna sausages and crackers. Along with capturing the spirit of early ’60s travel, the book astutely utilizes real locales. In New Orleans’ French Quarter, Guidry is a regular at the Napoleon House and the famed rotating Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone. Real people, including Las Vegas gangster-businessman Moe Dalitz, and performer Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz), put in appearances.
But it’s Berney’s central characters, including the chilling Paul Barone, the killer assigned to take out Guidry, who are most compelling. Even the kids have their moments—though I balked at the epilogue, which finds them, as adults, reminiscing about their past. It’s so unnecessary that I advise you to stop reading at the end of the previous chapter, which has a poetic climax involving an unknown killer.
Post Script: Hollywood—which loves road trips—is taking Berney’s book for a spin. Rights have been acquired by Lawrence Kasdan (writer-director of 80s-era movies including The Big Chill and Body Heat, and a writer of some of the Star Wars films). He plans to write and direct a November Road screen version.