Keep on Walkin’

I’ve never really thought I could write personal essays (or non-fiction, for that matter). They never held much appeal to me, as either a reader or as a writer.

A lot of this has to do with my checkered educational history; for someone who aspired to be a writer, it now amazes me how many college professors desperately tried to stomp that aspiration out of me–yet at the same time, it enormously pleases me that I proved them all WRONG. When I first started college, the week before my seventeenth birthday, my basic English Comp class required us to spend the first day writing an essay, predicated around the question you are going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, what three people and three things would you take with you, and why? I don’t remember what I wrote; I know one of the people was Stephen King so he could keep writing books to entertain me. But the end result of that essay was me being moved from Basic Comp to Honors English. This was not only a surprise but exciting; whomever that professor was, he recognized my ability! 

Honors English, however, turned out to be a horrific nightmare…as did all of my experiences with the English department of that particular college. My new professor–whom I shall never forget, like I shall never forget my first creative writing professor at that benighted plague of a university–was, quite frankly, a moron. There were only twelve of us in the class; she advised us on the very first day that she never gave A’s because that left no room for improvement. I was not an Honors student, so this didn’t phase me, but it caused a lot of discomfort in my extremely-driven-by-GPA classmates. And she stuck to that; none of us ever got an A on any of our essays or papers, and she certainly didn’t teach us anything. My essays were shredded by her on a regular basis; she also liked to proclaim that we would never get so honest an opinion on our writing as we got from her, and even as a naive teenager, I sensed that she took malicious pleasure in being as nasty as she could with our work. We never got anything productive or useful from her; no editorial guidance whatsoever; just nasty condescending commentary in red ink on our papers. That, coupled with a kinder yet equally unhelpful professor in the second semester of Honors English Comp, convinced me that I would never be able to write non-fiction; that writing essays and personal essays were a skill set I neither possessed, nor could learn.

Thanks for that, bitches.

And when you factor in the creative writing professor the next semester who told me I’d never publish…well, you can see why I became absolutely disinterested in college and it just became something else I had to endure and get through.

So, as I grew older and evolved and continued reading and pursuing from time to time my desire to write, I avoided nonfiction and essays. I was never going to write them, I wasn’t any good at them, so why bother? This negative perception continued throughout my life until a friend told me, several years ago, that you write a personal essay on your blog every day. I’d even written and published some, yet I still had that wall up in my mind: I’m not smart enough. I’m not clever enough. Anything I have to say has already been said better by someone else. Anything point I’d try to make would get the response “well, duh, LOSER.”

I started reading Joan Didion last year, beginning with her book Miami, and suddenly, began to see essays in an entirely new light.

This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books. I find myself wanting to apologize for my book’s title, which, in addition to embarrassingly taking part in a ubiquitous publishing trend by including the word girls, seems to evince a lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques. If I can say one lame thing in my defense, it is that I wanted to call this book Dead Girls from the moment I realized I was writing it, in the spring of 2014 I wrote an essay on the finale of the first season of True Detective, trying to parse a category of TV I identified as the Dead Girl Show, with Twin Peaks as this genre’s first and still most notable example. People seemed to like that essay, so I understood that Dead Girls was something I could hitch my wagon to.

So begins Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. To be honest, while I greatly enjoyed reading this book, I didn’t find that most of the essays were, in fact, about ‘surviving an American obsession’; I thought this was going to be a lengthy look at how the trope of dead girls runs through, and is repeatedly used, over and over, in all aspects of crime fiction; be it a television show, novels, or films. Bolin instead extrapolates her theme to encompass society as a whole, and I’m not entirely sure she succeeds.

Didion, on the other hand, opens this way:

This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me the more imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was so important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on finishing the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

It seems unfair to critique Bolin negatively simply because the book went in a different direction than I thought it would; but I ultimately was disappointed in her collection primarily because I was looking for, I don’t know, a feminist point of view about the misogyny in crime fiction, both written and filmed. That was, actually, my primary carp about her book. I enjoyed it otherwise; Bolin has a dry wit and she wrote about a lot of things from a perspective I hadn’t considered–that of the young millennial female trying to make it in an increasingly hostile world with very little opportunity for young writers to make a living. She also critiques Didion harshly; harsher then perhaps I might have, although I do periodically take some issue with the lens through which Didion sees the world and writes about it–that of a very privileged white woman, whose inability to recognize her own privilege sometimes colors her observations.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the third non-fiction book of Didion’s I’ve read over the last two years; the others being Miami and After Henry. I also read her novel A Book of Common Prayer, which, while bizarre, was also terribly interesting and exceptionally written. Regardless of what one might think of Didion’s privilege and how it might color her lens, the woman is an exceptionally skilled writer. Her sentences are flawlessly constructed, and the rhythm manages to convey an almost world-weariness, a sense of being jaded by what people do. The two books are actually good to read together, because they seem to focus on the same thing, even though written decades apart. Bolin uses the trope of the dead girl to launch into her consideration of a world where young people are disillusioned by the lack of opportunity, where intelligence and talent perhaps do not provide a means of making a living anymore, and how the misogyny of society, as depicted through the dead girl trope, helps stack the deck against young women. Didion’s book looks at the beginning of that erosion, the decay of the mythology of the American dream. Her observations of Haight-Ashbury during the days of the hippies and the flower children, and conversations with the young people who flocked there, is an interesting contrast to the world Bolin is writing about: those young people were disaffected by the box of the American dream, felt trapped by the opportunity their parents were pushing them towards; they didn’t want the white picket fence and the 2.3 children and the dog and the split-level house in the suburbs and the long commute into the city for a 9 to 5 existence. They rejected the American Dream; Bolin’s generation wishes it were even an option to reject.

Were I teaching Freshmen English Comp, these two books would be my required texts for my students. Both books made me think; both books inspired me to write myself and gave me ideas; both writers have depth and perception and skill. I got more than I was expecting from Bolin’s book; I got precisely what I thought I would from Didion’s.

I highly recommend both.

Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad?

Well, it’s Sunday morning and there’s a Saints game today; I will probably ignore it, as my blood pressure and heart can’t really take it, and spend the day continuing to keep my head down and try to plough through all this work I have to get done today.

I got very little done yesterday. I had, despite the good night’s sleep and the good rest I got Friday night, it turned out my batteries were still too low for me to get anything requiring a great deal of thinking and thought done. It’s a shame, and I may not have been wise to spend the day resting and watching television and reading, but it was what my brain and my soul needed. I also refuse to beat myself up for taking me time anymore; I am too old and no longer have the energy and/or wherewithal to work constantly without taking time to refresh and recharge and revisit.

The news of course doesn’t help; the constant sense of outrage and anger at events transpiring in the world every day drains me of a lot of energy. Social media, which used to be a fun way of recharging and seeing what people are up to, has turned into a cesspool of lies, ignorance and weaponized hatred. I refuse to engage with trolls or trollish behavior; my rule of social media has always been if I won’t say it to your face I won’t say it on-line. This, of course, can be intensely problematic because I will say it right to your face. But my energies are best spent elsewhere; hearts and minds cannot be changed or altered through nasty social media battling, and I have neither the patience or energy to waste on lost souls with no capacity for reason or logic or compassion for other human beings.

So, today I am going to get cleaned up, do some chores, and I am going to focus on getting some writing/revising/editing done. I had hoped to be finished with the Scotty revision today, but the end goal of being able to turn it in by November 1 is still a distinct possibility, even by not doing any work on it yesterday. One of my primary concerns, as I may have mentioned, was the fear that I am rushing the revisions on these final chapters in an attempt to get it finished on my self-imposed deadline, and yesterday I also realized that I still have an additional three to four days to get this done by the 1st. There’s no need, absolutely no none, to revise three chapters today when I can actually manage one per day and still finish on time. Stop adding stress and pressure to your life, Gregalicious–it will be done when it is time for it to be done.

I got a copy of Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and dived into it some yesterday while football games played in the background (I have to admit I enjoyed watching Georgia do to Florida what LSU did to them; and that untimed play touchdown for the win by Kentucky over Missouri was amazing–definitely going down in Kentucky lore, which is usually about near-misses and coming close. As it happened, I thought to myself, you know, these are situations where Kentucky used to always lose. Maybe there has been a sea-change in the Bluegrass State; we will see what happens when they host Georgia next weekend). Didion is a great stylist; the way she uses words and creates sentences and paragraphs with an eye for a very telling detail is extraordinary. (I have some issues with Didion and the lens through which she sees things, but despite that lens the way she writes is exceptional. If I ever sit down and write about Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, I will probably address them at that time.) And as with any writer who is truly terrific, reading her words made me think about my own, and gave me some thoughts.

As I said at the time, reading Bolin’s Dead Girls made me start thinking about my own essays; I’ve written quite a few over the years, and of course, as my friend Laura points out to me, my blog is essentially me writing a daily personal essay. I don’t know if I ever say anything truly earth-shattering or profound; I don’t think of myself as a great thinker, or being particularly perceptive and incisive in my points of view on many subjects. My intellect–and my ability to write essays–are still things I don’t have a lot of confidence in; thank you, public education and land grant colleges for making me insecure about these things. One of the myriad of reasons I started writing this blog back in December of 2004 on Livejournal was because I wanted to write about things no one would pay me to write about; to share my observations of the world, society, politics, and culture through the lens of a gay man in a highly homophobic world; it was also why I wrote about gay characters and themes in my fiction. My writing, by virtue of my lavender lens, is always going to be somewhat political; despite my privilege as a white man I still didn’t hit the privilege trifecta of straight white male, and while the privilege of being white male is still much better than any other variation of that, gay also negates a great deal of that.

I had originally, and always thought, that if I ever wrote about the Virginia experience, it would be an entire book, which I always jokingly called, to myself, Gay Porn Writer, because that was the way I amused myself throughout the entire banning experience–laughing about me being described in so many newspapers and angry emails and complaints as “gay porn writer Greg Herren.” Over the years since all that nonsense, and over the last few years in particular, I realized that isn’t enough material to write an entire book around, and realized I needed, if I was ever going to write about that experience, another hook. I thought about extrapolating that happening to me in 2004 with the changes in publishing and society since then; but it was always kind of amorphous. I thought maybe using that experience as a jumping off spot to talking about race, gender, and sex might be a great idea. Realizing that the Virginia experience was the basis for a personal essay, a long one, to be added to a collection of other essays I’ve written as well as others I could write, that I could write about my life and my experience and call the collection Gay Porn Writer: The Fictions of My Life was probably the best way to do this, and more workable than simply trying to piece together a non-fiction narrative about how gay work is seen as porn by so many homophobic people because the very word gay makes them think about sucking cock or butt fucking.

And I’ve written so much! I had no idea how much non-fiction I’ve actually done in my career; how many author interviews, how many book reviews and fitness columns and whatever else may have you I’ve written and published over the years.

One of the things I did do yesterday around the laziness was start writing down essay titles I remember having written in my journal, in order to start searching through files and computer drives for them, to put them all into one easily accessible folder for me in the future…which also startled me; I remembered so many, and there are probably many more that I don’t remember. But that’s one of the chores I’ve assigned myself today; start pulling those together. I know my essay from Love, Bourbon Street, about Katrina and the evacuation, is rather lengthy and would have to be the anchor to the book.

And now, back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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Everything About You

Saturday morning. A good night’s sleep had me up earlier than I would have thought this morning, but I feel rested and good; I was exhausted last night for some reason; Friday, perhaps? I don’t know. But I feel good this morning, I only have one errand to run–which is the grocery store, and I’ll try to get that out of the way momentarily–and some cleaning and organizing needs to be done. I also need to do some writing and editing today; yesterday I was too tired to work on the Scotty revision when I got home, so I need to get caught up on that today.

GEAUX TIGERS!

LSU plays their fifth ranked opponent today, Mississippi State. The Bulldogs roll into Tiger Stadium tonight ranked 22nd in the country. They have some nice wins under their belt, and some losses to quality teams–last week they surprised Auburn–and so this is by no means going to be an easy game for LSU. There could be a let down after last week’s huge, physical win over Georgia; Mississippi State is going to come in hungry; and LSU has to be careful not to be over-confident, must stay focused, and try not to look ahead to the big Alabama game in two weeks–which won’t be as important should LSU lose to Mississippi State. I will undoubtedly be extremely tense during the game, but am going to try my best not to get overwrought and overly involved in the game. It’s supposed to be fun to watch for Christ’s sake.

I also have some reading to do, and some editing that needs to get done, and an author interview I need to get started. My intent is to clean out my email inbox before leaving for the grocery store, as well as get some morning cleaning done here in the kitchen/office. My day job is moving at the end of this month, and I will no longer, in the new building, have my own office; I shall be in a cubicle like everyone else–and so have had to empty the bookcases in my office as well as take down all the pictures from my walls. I do not have the wall-space here in the Lost Apartment to adorn my walls with these pictures–mostly of our trip to Italy–and I’ve been trying to squeeze the books in wherever I can, which for obvious reasons has not been easy to do.

I’m still reading Empire of Sin, and am hoping to get further along in that this weekend as well; it may be in my lap during the game tonight. My reading has slowed down dramatically; and I still haven’t done a blog entry about Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls. Maybe later today.

I finished watching season three of The Man in the High Castle last night, and by far and away, this third season is the best of the show so far. It is interesting to me how well they’ve done with the character of John Smith, an American who fought against the Axis during the lost war and has switched sides, climbing the ladder in the American nazi hierarchy and also being groomed for leadership by Himmler himself. Underplayed beautifully by Rufus Sewell, the personal journey of this monster has sort of humanized him–which is, in and of itself, terrifying; this man is a monster and the antithesis of a patriotic American; everything a true American patriot would despise–and yet, those personal problems and tragedies and little heartbreaks in his family life make him almost win the audience’s sympathies…then he does something monstrous and you remember, there are no good Nazis. This show, and its message, are particularly real and powerful and important, given these times in which we live.

In the early 1990’s, I has an idea for a dystopian series of novels, built around the collapse of the American republic and the rise of a totalitarian state in its place; which I was going to call There Comes a Tide. I have all my notes and ideas in a folder somewhere, which means I might take a look at them sometime soon and see if it’s something I want to write in the next year or so. I have a y/a on deck to write after I finish the Scotty revision, and I am also going to be working on the WIP in the meantime as well; I kind of wanted to try writing a cozy after the first of the year and I also have a noir I want to write, in addition to a paranormal suspense thriller I’ve been toying with the last few months. There’s simply never enough time to write everything I want to write, and all the procrastination doesn’t help.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I’ve also decided to pull a long story from my collection and replace it with two shorter stories; the longer story will probably go up as a Kindle single at some point, and I also am in the midst of another long story that will probably turn into a Kindle single as well: “Never Kiss a Stranger.” I’ve recognized that story needs to be longer but it’s not enough of a story to be a novel…and there’s always Kindle single.

And now, back to the spice mines. I need to wash the bed linens, put some dishes away, get these floors cleaned, organize and file….and stop procrastinating.

Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader!

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Good for Me

The LSU game on Saturday was not pleasant, alas; it’s never fun to lose, particularly when it’s to a hated rival. I was far too tense during the game, and realized that it was because of pent-up nervous energy. I correctly diagnosed that if I got out of my easy chair, turned both the upstairs and downstairs televisions to the game, and used the time to listen–occasionally watching–while cleaning and organizing, I could remain calm and cool and not get overwrought. I love football, but I don’t love the anxiety and stress that comes from total immersion in a game…so I think from now on I am primarily going to listen while cleaning the house.

And when the game was over and LSU had lost, I had a clean apartment and had done several loads of laundry and several loads of dishes. So that counts, at least for me, as a win. I also started another book purge; recognizing that some of my justification for hoarding some books (“someday I’ll write a non-fiction book about blah-blah-blah”) was just that: justification. Rather grimly, as I started pruning books off my shelves I told myself, you’d only ever have time to write that non-fiction book if you reached a place where you could support yourself solely by writing. And if that is the case, you can always buy another copy of the book.

The Saints didn’t play yesterday; rather they are on Monday Night Football playing the Washington Racist Stereotypes Redskins, which means getting home from the main office tonight will be a chore–which means I have to go the long way to avoid the Superdome and the Central Business District. Yay. It also means Paul will have to walk home from work, but I am sure he is already expecting that outcome.

Yesterday I didn’t feel well; a fever that kept coming and going, runny nose, congestion…very unpleasant. I couldn’t focus because I had sick head; my mind couldn’t focus. I tried writing for a while and finally had to give up on it. Instead, I curled up in my easy chair and finished reading Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls.

 

 

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Stay

We did finish watching Castle Rock last week. I’m not really sure what to think of it, but I probably should watch the finale one more time just to be sure. I was playing with my phone–getting text messages–and I may have missed something key.

Either that, or the finale simply made no sense.

Which is, I suppose, a possibility.

I did write yesterday, not nearly as much as I wanted to or would have liked to, but despite all of my best efforts the words simply weren’t coming as quickly or as easily as I would like. I can remember, years ago, putting Madonna or Stevie Nicks or Fleetwood Mac CD’s in the stereo and hitting shuffle, sitting down at the computer and then several hours and thousands of words later realizing there was no music playing anymore and the afternoon was gone. Now, I feel like I am always scrabbling to get some work done between interruptions and distractions. It’s okay–the work is getting done, if at a slower pace than I would prefer–but I do miss those blissful afternoons writing away like a madman.

I’ve been mulling over my y/a about rape culture. As I said yesterday, I had thought (oh, innocence) that in the years that had passed since Steubenville that it wasn’t timely anymore. Yeah, that. It is amazing that at age fifty-seven I can still be so fucking naive about the world in which I live. I read a terrific essay the other day on Vox about how one of the greatest teen rom-coms of the 1980’s, Sixteen Candles, is actually deeply problematic (I’d already recognized its racism years ago), which also sent me into a deep think about other movies aimed at the youth market in the 1980’s and how problematic they are: Revenge of the Nerds, Risky Business, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (less so than the others), Valley Girl, and The Last American Virgin, among many others–and we can’t forget (no matter how hard we try) Porky’s and it slew of even worse sequels. I also started reading Dead Girls by Alice Bolan; which is well written and very interesting. (Every so often I think I would like to write creative non-fiction; I would love to write a critique of the bury your gays trope which would also deal with how gay men are depicted in crime fiction, as well as piece on Gothic romantic suspense novels from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, posited on the premise that these books were noir for women; but then I read something like this book and think, not educated or well read or smart enough.)  I also think there’s a book in a critical reexamination of teen films/books/television programs and how they handled gender roles and sexual assault in the 1980’s.

I am also seriously considering learning how to speak Italian…although French would probably be better for research purposes.

And the Saints won!

And now back to the spice mines.

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Love Touch

Sunday morning, as I sit here in my cool workspace swilling coffee, trying to wake up and figure out what to do with the rest of my day. I need to go to the grocery store and I should also probably make an attempt to go to the gym; but I can’t seem to find my iPad, which makes doing cardio pointless (I read or watch TV on my iPad while on the treadmill; perhaps not having my iPad is simply an excuse for not going; what if it’s gone, lost, stolen? I am trying not to think that way and am hoping that I simply left it at the office. If not, I am terribly screwed because I don’t know where it is and I currently don’t have the cash on hand to replace it. So, yes, let’s just continue pretending happily that it’s as the office, shall we?)

I could, of course, just go to the gym and do weights. That always feels good, at any rate. Perhaps once I finish swilling this coffee….

I slept late yesterday, and I slept even later today. I spent most of yesterday not only reading but doing chores around the house, on the pretense that today I would not only go to the grocery store and the gym, but I would also spend some time writing today. I need to finish a short story; I need to revise still another, and there’s that new one struggling to take root in my brain that I haven’t really decided what to do with just yet. There are two others swirling around up there in my head, as well as others I’ve not thought about or have forgotten about in the meantime. But now, now as I wake up I feel more confident about running the errands and going to the gym and actually doing some writing today.

I’ve been reading The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, and greatly enjoying it; is there anything quite like well-written non-fiction? It’s why I love Joan Didion and Barbara Tuchman; one of the things I love to do while reading is to learn, and non-fiction fills that need quite beautifully. I also like non-fiction that makes me think; which is why I am looking forward to reading Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. I still would love to do a collection of my own essays, book reviews, and so forth; but egad, what an odious chore pulling all of that together would be. I struggle with essays, but I also think that the writing of essays; the ability to pull thoughts from my head and extrapolate them out to their fullest meaning, is vitally important and a skill-set I wish I had honed more properly. A friend once pointed out to me, as I bemoaned my inability to write essays, that my blog itself is nothing more than years of personal essays. That took me aback, because it was, in many ways, correct; there is definitely some truth to that, but it’s hard for me to take the blog seriously in that fashion, because so much of it is simply written off the top of my head in the morning as I wake up and drink coffee and try to figure out what to do with the rest of my day.

One of the problems for me with personal essays is, ultimately, the issue of self-deprecation, which I’ve addressed in previous blog entries about my writing and my career and my books; who am I to write about this subject? Am I expert enough in this to write about it, or am I simply talking about things that smarter, better-educated people have written about long ago and having the hubristic belief that I am the only person to see this truth for the first time? 

And, in considering myself self-deprecatingly as not that special or particularly smart, I defeat myself and never write the essay.

And of course, there is the problem of all the lies my memory tells me.

But yesterday, I took the afternoon to finish read an ARC of Lou Berney’s new novel, November Road, and was blown away by it.

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Behold! The Big Easy in all its wicked splendor!

Frank Guidry paused at the corner of Toulouse to  bask in the neon furnace glow. He’d lived in New Orleans the better part of his thirty-seven years on earth, but the dirty glitter and sizzle of the French Quarter still hit his bloodstream like a drug. Yokels and locals, muggers and hustlers, fire-eaters and magicians. A go-go girl was draped over the wrought-iron rail of a second floor balcony, one book sprung free from her sequined negligee and swaying like a metronome to the beat of the jazz trio inside. Bass, drums, piano, tearing through “Night and Day.” But that was New Orleans for you. Even the worst band in the crummiest clip joint in the city could swing, man, swing.

A guy came whipping up the street, screaming bloody murder. Hot on his heels–a woman waving a butcher knife, screaming, too,

Guidry soft-shoed out of their way. The beat cop on the corner yawned. The juggler outside the 500 Club didn’t drop a ball. Just another Wednesday night on Bourbon Street.

Lou’s previous novel, The Long and Faraway Gone, won every crime-writing award under the sun that it was eligible for: Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and I don’t know what all; it was the crime publishing equivalent of the EGOT. It was, obviously, an exceptional novel. I met Lou when we were on a panel together at the Raleigh Bouchercon, along with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron; moderated by the amazing Katrina Niidas Holm. It was funny, because the panel topic was, I think, writing about small towns which, in fact, none of us on the panel really did, but we had fun with the topic and I know I brought up Peyton Place at least once and pointed out that suburbs are small towns with the primary difference being suburbs are bedroom communities for cities while small towns aren’t attached in any way to a larger city. It was fun and spirited and I liked Lou, thought he was incredibly smart, as were Liz and Lori. Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars for that year; and I admire their work tremendously. I’ve not had the opportunity to read Liz’ work; but she did have a terrific story in the New Orleans Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou.

Anyway, I digress.

I’ve been looking forward to November Road since I finished reading The Long and Faraway Gone, but I still need to go back and read Lou’s first two novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight. 

I also have to admit, I was a little hesitant about Lou’s new book; it’s built around the Kennedy assassination in 1963, which always gives me pause (I have yet to immerse myself in Stephen King’s 11/22/63). I’m not sure why I don’t care to read fiction around the Kennedy assassination, but there you have: an insight into my mind. But the Kennedy assassination, while a primary plot device, is just that: a device to set the story in motion. Frank Guidry is involved with a mob boss in New Orleans, and after the Kennedy assassination he is given instructions to fly to Dallas, retrieve a car, and drive it to Houston to dispose of it. While he is doing this, he realizes that he is getting rid of evidence that may be of vital importance to the investigation into the president’s murder–and as such, is a loose end who knows too much and figures out he’s got to disappear now because they’re going to want to kill him. And sure enough, they do send someone after him, Paul Barone, a remorseless killer and tracker. The cat-and-mouse game between them builds suspense throughout the book.

But it’s not just about Frank, and it is a credit to Berney’s talent, creativity and imagination in that he throws in another primary character, constructed carefully in all the facets and layers that make her live and breathe: Charlotte. Charlotte is a wife and mother in a small town in Oklahoma, married to a useless drunk fuck-up with whom she had two daughters, and her salary working for the local town photographer is the primary thing keeping a roof over their heads. Her own ambitions for being a photographer herself are constantly shat upon by her boss, her society and culture and environment: she is a woman, a wife and mother, and in 1963 that so thoroughly defines her that any other ambition she might have throws her identity as wife and mother into question. Trapped, with the walls closing in on her closer every day, Charlotte takes the president’s assassination as a sign for her to run away with the girls and start over. Charlotte is an extraordinary character;  her relationship with her daughters is the strong backbone of this story. You root for her, you want her to make her escape and make her dreams come true.

Frank and Charlotte cross paths in New Mexico, and Frank sees them as his salvation; his murderous pursuers might be thrown off as they are looking for a single man, not one traveling with his wife and kids; the book becomes even stronger and more suspenseful once they are all together. Frank and Charlotte become close, despite not being completely honest with each other; they are both keeping their cards close to their vests, but yet form a loving bond. WIll they escape, or will they not?

November Road reminded me a lot of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn; the same kind of relationship building between a man and a woman where a lot of information, important, information, is held back from each other, and that lack of trust while falling in love is an important theme in both books: women trying to make their best lives, even if it means making morally questionable decisions, while becoming involved with a man who isn’t completely honest with her. Berney’s writing style, and tone, and mood, also put me in mind of Megan Abbott’s brilliant Give Me Your Hand. If you’ve not read yet the Lippman and Abbott novels, I’d recommend getting them and holding on to them until Berney’s book is released in October and reading them all over the course of a long weekend.

Bravo.