Lou Berney’s November Road came highly recommended to me, by someone whose taste is impeccable. “Stylized historical crime fiction” – not my usual fare at all. It’s the kind of book that has a blurb from Stephen King on the cover. (Which I’m fine with. Hey, I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King in my lifetime, admittedly mostly in high school. But I still love The Stand to this day.)
My expectations were high, and I wasn’t disappointed. November Road is a very good read. Extremely well-written, a compelling page-turner.
Here’s the premise: Set against the backdrop of JFK’s assassination, we meet Frank Guidry, a handsome, charming and entirely amoral New Orleans mafioso. Oops, turns out he played a small part in the assassination, unwittingly. He’s a rook in a game of payback orchestrated by his mob boss Carlos, who really didn’t appreciate Jack and Bobby hauling him to testify before Congress about organized crime. Turns out mob bosses hold grudges.
So Frank, always one step ahead, scrams when he sees other unwitting pawns getting offed all over New Orleans. Carlos is cleaning up loose ends. Frank’s on the lam, and along the way he meets up with Charlotte and her two young daughters, who are all headed to California.
Charlotte’s back story is pedestrian – she’s decided her life with a hopeless drunk of a husband in small town Oklahoma is going nowhere. JFK’s assassination barely makes an imprint on her – what does she care, her life will never change, she could write all of her next chapters on a napkin. After a depressing pre-Thanksgiving family dinner filled with pretense, Charlotte’s mother-in-law presses a wad of cash into her palm in unspoken gratitude for suffering her useless alcoholic son. Charlotte sees an opening and takes it. She packs her bags and the kids’ bags and they are off, with the car, the epileptic dog, and $300. So long drunk Dooley. Bye bye Oklahoma.
After their chance meeting, Frank decides to use Charlotte’s car trouble and the insta-family she provides to create a cover story for his own trek to Vegas. The bad guys looking for him won’t be looking for a family man on a Thanksgiving road trip with the pretty wife and sweet girls.
But the twist in November Road is that Frank falls for his own cover story. He falls in love with Charlotte … and her kids. He desperately wants the sham to become a reality. He wants to be a husband and, yes, even a father. His own father was a brutal asshole who ended up murdering Frank’s younger sister (with a fire poker, yikes) after Frank escaped his abusive home at an early age. However crappy a guy he is, Frank thinks about his sister every day.
Now here’s pretty, smart and thoughtful Charlotte – they can be a family together and right this ship for both of them. She admits she’s left hubby, and Frank assumes she must need a replacement. Here’s the family he never had, pre-packaged, and right at his door step.
Of course (spoiler alert) this Brady Bunch fantasy can never happen – Frank’s only hope for surviving Carlos’ wrath is getting the hell outside North America, as far away from Carlos as humanly possible. Vietnam is the plan, and it’s going to be tricky to get Charlotte to agree to that side trip. By the way, Charlotte’s interest in acquiring another hubby, even one as charming and handsome as Frank, is less than nil. Sex, sure, but otherwise she’s making her own way from now on. Men just drag you down.
November Road is at its heart a novel of redemption. We initially meet the Frank Guidry who rats out his oldest friend, who’s on Carlos’ shit list, after he’s sought Frank’s protection. He becomes the Frank Guidry who is prepared to sacrifice his own life for another’s. We initially meet the Frank who objectifies, exploits, and disposes of a long line of willing New Orleans women. In stark contrast to the Frank who grows to idolize and idealize Charlotte.
Yet Charlotte isn’t Frank’s salvation. Rather, it’s his newfound insight into what a healthy and nurturing parent-child relationship can be. He’s a man willing to sacrifice himself, and more for the kids than for Charlotte. Those girls deserve the chance at life that his asshole father stole from his sister.
Frank Guidry at the end of November Road is a changed man, a man trying to be decent for the first time in his life. A man willing to protect rather than run.
The best part of November Road, the most apt and fitting, is its epilogue, set decades later. Charlotte’s two daughters, both impressive movers and shakers shaped by their mother’s grit and determination, visit her grave. They have a fleeting memory of that road trip when they were little kids, with … who was that man? They don’t know that road trip shaped their lives. And their saviour Frank is largely unremembered and entirely redeemed.