Lou Berney’s mother used to say he was conceived on the day John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, but he is wary of the claim. “It’s plausible,” says the writer, “though the math is a stretch, and my mother always did like a good story.”
The death of the president resonated for his family, which lived 200 miles to the north in Oklahoma City. Every summer, when they went down to see the Texas Rangers play in Arlington, his dad would drive through Dealey Plaza and point out the sixth-floor window of the Book Depository Building.
Today, the assassination provides the backdrop to Mr. Berney’s new crime novel. “November Road” arrives Oct. 9 with glowing early reviews and extra sales support from its publisher William Morrow.
It’s welcome validation for Mr. Berney, whose lurching writing career didn’t take off until he entered his 50s. “November Road” follows his successful 2015 novel, “The Long and Faraway Gone,” a tale of memory and murder in Oklahoma City, which won enthusiastic notices and an Edgar award for best mystery.
His latest follows two strangers whose paths cross—a street-smart operator who works for a New Orleans mob boss, and an Oklahoma City mother fleeing her husband. The premise came from a small prairie town he’d heard about, a “cool-off” spot where soldiers for crime organizations went to lay low. Mr. Berney originally set his story in 1968: A brutal hit man goes to this out-of-the-way redoubt and falls for a local woman with two precocious daughters, a drunken husband and an epileptic dog. The character was inspired by his late mother, a secretary with talent and ambition who never broke through the barriers of the time.
Something wasn’t firing early on, though. His new agent, Shane Salerno, suggested relocating to the days following Nov. 22, 1963. The presidential assassination itself wouldn’t be the focus, but it would ignite the story and its aftermath would provide a backdrop: “a seismic change in our country that can be reflected in the characters who are forced into motion by this event,” Mr. Berney says.
When the JFK news hits, the protagonist, mob foot soldier Frank Guidry, realizes that days before he’d been asked to park a sky-blue ’59 Cadillac Eldorado in a garage two blocks from Dealey Plaza. He had figured it was a routine assignment, maybe leaving a getaway car for a contract killer, but this scared him because he knew his boss despised Jack and Bobby Kennedy and was capable of anything. He bolts, knowing the mob will eliminate him as a potential witness. And indeed a brutal hit man is right behind him.
A fleeing Guidry happens upon the Oklahoma mom, Charlotte, for whom the JFK assassination has been equally consequential. “When everyone else around her is crying and distraught and about the future, she realizes she’s not feeling that—her life isn’t going to change because of what happened in Dallas. She’s got to do something now or she’s going to be stuck for the rest of her life,” says Mr. Berney.
She leaves her husband, taking her kids and the dog, heading for California. Guidry joins them, figuring traveling with a family would be safer. Along Route 66 and points west, in the empty environs of the Sun Belt before it was called the Sun Belt, their lives intertwine.
The love story—and the curiosity of the kids—drives much of the action, as Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” plays in the background, a portend of unimaginable changes to come. Guidry and his pursuer are part a fading old order, a creaky albeit criminal institution about to be paved over. Charlotte is chasing a new future, if not for her then for her daughters. The book is filled with Brownie cameras, gaudy roadside attractions, cars that always break down and children without smartphones. While he was writing, Mr. Berney avoided reading anything set after 1963.
He doesn’t romanticize the landscape. As a teenager, he couldn’t wait to get out of Oklahoma City. “When I was 17, I kind of walked off the high school graduation stage and got in my car.”
He went to Loyola University in New Orleans for college, then the University of Massachusetts Amherst for grad school. His career then took a too-heady turn. He sent a short story to the New Yorker, which published it. He was 24. Celebrated New York editor Corlies “Cork” Smith signed him to a book contract for a collection of stories called “The Road to Bobby Joe,” which came out before he finished his MFA. Well-reviewed by some, it was full of quirky twists and absurdist humor with stories like “One Hundred Foreskins” and “Jesus in the ’Do,” about an image reflected in a woman’s hairdo. “Please don’t read it,” he says. “If I had a story with a plotline it was accidental. I was trying to do too much.”
He didn’t see another book published for 19 years. The novels he agonized over met only rejection letters. He gave up writing books and taught creative writing in San Francisco. “There’s nothing worse than teaching people to write when you know you can’t do it yourself,” he says.
He wrote some Hollywood scripts which gave him paydays. The one that got made was a 2013 Christmas movie called “Angels Sing” whose stars included Harry Connick Jr., Connie Britton and Willie Nelson. Some reviews praised the music, not the screenplay. “They changed 95% of it,” Mr. Berney says without ruefulness.
He and his wife Christine, whom he’d met in grad school, moved to Oklahoma City in 2001 to help care for his father who had Alzheimer’s. His parents both passed away that decade, and the Berneys stayed.
It was then, comfortable back home but stressed out after a bleak winter as his dad’s health declined, that he started a crime novel. “I decided to write something that would help me escape, the way a reader reads to escape,” he says. Set in Las Vegas and Panama, “Gutshot Straight,” about a poker-playing getaway driver named Shake Bouchon, was followed by a sequel, “Whiplash River,” the lurid titles derived from Texas Hold ’em jargon. Tough and wisecracking, the books drew comparisons to Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, if not a huge audience. But they gave him incentive to reach further.
The warm reception for “The Long and Faraway Gone” encouraged him. It was more ambitious than his previous two books, although still grisly, gritty and funny, and he thought he’d found a balance between the genre fiction of his first two books and his earlier aspirations.
“It took me those two books to find out what kind of writer I am,” he says. “I was never sure if I was a literary writer or a crime writer, and with “Long and Faraway Gone” and this one, it’s finally like I could do both. It just took me 30 years to find out.”