It’s 1963. Kennedy has just been assassinated. A mob fixer who knows about a lot of wrongdoing has finally learned too much for his own good.
Frank Guidry goes on the run to save his own life, and along the drive crosses paths with Charlotte Roy, a woman fleeing a drunk husband with her two young daughters, epileptic dog, and a broken down car.
The gangster picks them up. As he makes his escape, he’ll help them make theirs — and the family-man appearance could provide the perfect cover as he tries to elude the relentless hitman tracking him across the desert.
That’s the set-up for Lou Berney’s new novel November Road, debuting Tuesday, which spans genres from suspense thriller, to romance, Americana tale, and cat-and-mouse chase.
Berney, author of the previous novels The Long and Faraway Gone, Whiplash River, and Gutshot Straight, spoke with Entertainment Weekly about transforming this turning point in American history into a crime saga with heart.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are a lot of places to begin with November Road, but let’s start with Charlotte. She’s a mom of two daughters, with a dog who’s prone to seizures, and she decides she’s leaving her husband. You based her partly on your own mother, right?
LOU BERNEY: One of my sisters has passed away, but the other’s still around and very much part of my life, and I got a call from her and she’s like, “I really liked your book. Can we talk?” It was like, “Uh-oh.” That’s always ominous. So I met her, and she was like, “Is this what you think? You think she would’ve been happier if she had left our father?”
Your mother didn’t actually leave your father?
My dad actually got sober when I was 3 years old, and he stayed sober until the end of his life through AA. So it’s a completely different outcome. But I was thinking about that early period. What if she had taken a different route? What if she’d just made a different choice? I didn’t want it to be a foregone conclusion that leaving your drunk husband was a good choice. At that time, it was up in the air. It could’ve been the worst choice of her life.
So it’s a “what if?” But your own family would have been very different. It reminds me of a line later in the book: “Every time we make a decision, we destroy all of our possible futures.”
I was 10 years younger than my next oldest sister, and so I’d always hear these family stories about what a drunk my dad was. And my mom, I knew how hard she worked, so it became a mythology for me in some ways as a kid. This was before me, this was prehistory. I was always fascinated by that and what would’ve happened if she had taken a different angle. I wouldn’t be around! But it’d be interesting to see what might happen.
November Road is a crime story, but it’s also joined with a love story, and it’s a chase story. So let’s talk about the criminal at the heart of this, Frank Guidry. He’s a clean-up guy for the mafia. What finally gets him in trouble?
He knows too much. He’s the guy who knows everybody and knows everything, which up until Nov. 22, 1963, is his greatest asset.
Then he does something that clues him in that the mob was involved in JFK’s murder.
He’s a very smart dude, and he puts things together and he connects the dots in a way that suddenly makes him very dangerous to Carlos Marcello, who’s head of the New Orleans mob. So he has to start running for his life, and all of a sudden, everything that used to be of value to them, like that he knows everybody, he’s got a friend everywhere, becomes a threat. Now everybody’s looking for him and hunting him down. When he comes across this housewife from Oklahoma with her two little girls, he sees an opportunity to assume a different identity and maybe skate under the radar for a little bit.
I like the scene where he stops to walk their dog and he has to act like a regular person, the dad of these two little girls, like what he imagines a normal, good person to be. He’s done a lot of hard things in his life, but now he’s got to act like Mr. Middle America, right?
Absolutely, and he’s got to dress like Mr. Middle America/ He’s really playing a role. In general, he’s the kind of guy who was always playing a role, but now it’s a completely different. What happens if you start realizing you like that role? You’ve never been this person before, but you realize it’s a pretty good fit the longer he plays this nice, loving, middle American guy.
After he meets Charlotte and her daughters, they head back on the road. Tell us about Paul Barone, another mob “fixer” who is pursuing Frank?
Paul Barone was, interestingly, the original main character, and the book was going to be about this hit man who ends up going to a small town and meeting this mother of two little girls. I spent about five months on that and it was a total disaster. I mean, catastrophic. My big breakthrough was realizing he’s the wrong main character. He’s the wrong protagonist, he needs to be the antagonist. Once I figured that out, everything else started clicking.
They both work in the criminal underworld, but Paul is a much darker figure than Frank.
Paul Barone is Carlos Marcello’s go-to hit man, the guy who cleans up everything. In the book, he’s the guy who kills the guy who kills Kennedy. I was less interested in the guy who “really” shot Kennedy than the guy who cleans that up. Carlos Marcello was not going to just let that assassin go loose. So Barone, for me, was one of my favorite characters to write, just because he’s so murderous and so ruthless.
Human life seems to mean nothing to him. He kills, and people are just ashes to him to sweep away.
I discovered that amoral is much better for a main character than sociopathic, and I think that’s the difference between the two guys. Frank Guidry is amoral when it starts, but he’s got the potential for change, whereas Barone, someone who kills that many people and in such a ruthless, methodical way, he’s never going to be someone who falls in love with a housewife from Oklahoma.
You’ve taken some true-life characters here, like Carlos Marcello, who was a real mob boss, and blended them with the Kennedy assassination. I know there are lots of conspiracy theories out there, but did you do some homework that you felt backed up that theory a little bit?
I knew I didn’t want to focus on the Kennedy assassination or any kind of conspiracy. I knew I wanted to just make that quick, easy, and clean.
The mob involvement in Kennedy’s killing is just a given, as far as this book goes.
But at the same time, I wanted it to be plausible, so I did a ton of reading about the assassination. I read all the conspiracy theories, and they ranged the gamut, as I’m sure you know, from really out there to really plausible. For me, the most plausible theory is Carlos Marcello in New Orleans. While I’m in no position to make a definitive statement about who killed Kennedy, I feel like at least my version is believable and it’s something that could have happened. For me, it was the inciting incident for Barone, for Frank, and for Charlotte. It’s what set them off on their journeys.
As a backdrop, it’s an inciting incident for the entire country. You really work in the upheaval that the nation is just beginning to go through, in terms of the civil rights movement, equal rights for women. November Road looks at this post-assassination moment as the prologue for a decade of change in the United States.
For sure. I felt as if the Kennedy assassination, along with Pearl Harbor, are the two things in the 20th century that really changed the country in profound ways. You can look at ’67, ’68, all the stuff that’s going crazy in America, but it starts in ’63. It starts with that assassination. I wanted to get ahead of the curve with that and get in the early stirrings of the upheaval that was happening in the country, and then all of a sudden, this happens. It really does send these ripples that cascade eventually through the country.
You also capture some of the style and music and culture of this era. When I started reading the book, I immediately cast Frank Sinatra is Frank Guidry.
[Laughs] That’s awesome. I think that’s great, man.
It opens with him in New Orleans and he’s seducing a woman and he seems so cool. He’s even got a hi-fi stereo in pristine condition. I’m picturing this swinging, pseudo-gangster.
To be honest, though, I would cast Dean Martin.
I feel like Frank Guidry is a little bit more Dean Martin, because Frank Sinatra was such a tough guy. But I was totally playing with those characters in my head, and I almost put Sinatra in this book, in Vegas. There’s that great story, which I know you’ve heard, where a pit boss punched out Frank Sinatra. I believe it was at The Sands. But unfortunately, it happened two years after the events of the book, so I couldn’t put it in.
But there was also a casual but extreme misogyny to this era. Frank Guidry seems to be grappling with that. It seems like you were testing a rough, retro-guy’s perspective on the evolving world with this story.
That was my goal, for sure. Here’s a guy who treats women as objects, or as conquests or as trophies. And with Charlotte, I wanted him to start recognizing the human being there. He’s going to have to deal with her in completely different ways than he’s dealt with any woman before.
Charlotte tells him, “Everyone who’s been pushed aside for so long. They’re sick and tired of it.” She’s forecasting something that took half a century to actually come true. And it’s still in process.
When I was writing the book, I wanted to be really careful not to present the view of the early ’60s, that we normally get, which is of sort of this idyllic, suburban, prosperous, happy America, because it wasn’t for women, and it wasn’t for African-Americans, and it wasn’t for the poor, and it wasn’t for a lot of people. So to me, there was a powder keg there already, and this fuse was burning.