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November Road, Lou Berney; Little Faith, Nickolas Butler

JFK’s murder leads to a thrilling chase through the heart of the US in a book which captivates Doug Johnstone

The wide expanses of the American heartlands have always made a great backdrop for resonant, thoughtful fiction, and this week we have two very different novels that use it as a framework to look at the realities of the flawed American dream.

First up is November Roadby Lou Berney, the author’s fourth novel, the cover of which comes adorned with praise from the likes of Stephen King and Ian Rankin.

November Road is Berney’s first foray into historical fiction, using the assassination of John F Kennedy as the starting point for a classic noir story. JFK’s death has of course been used a lot by novelists over the years as a way to pick apart the American psyche, but Berney’s take is unusual in that the murder is only tangential to his main action.

Berney establishes early on in his telling that New Orleans boss Carlo Marcello was responsible for hiring JFK’s killer. The story from there is told in three separate narratives that twist around each other and eventually intersect in spectacular fashion.

The first is Frank Guidry, a loyal fixer for Marcello who finds himself getting put in the frame for something he didn’t do. Making a break for it, he flees to Las Vegas as incognito as possible.

The thriller elements of November Road are expertly handled,

At the same time we get the story of Charlotte Roy, a frustrated housewife and mother of two young children in Oklahoma, who makes a spontaneous decision one day to leave her abusive and no-good husband and take the kids to a relative in California.

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Fate brings these two together, as Guidry cynically inveigles himself into Roy’s life, using her and the kids to throw possible assassins off his scent. And one particular assassin, Barone, is very close on his tail, leaving a trail
of destruction in his wake as all three of them get involved in a complex cat-and-mouse game across the country.

The thriller elements of November Road are expertly handled, and the switching between narrative voices is wonderfully balanced and nuanced. But the true success of the novel is the unlikely romantic relationship between Guidry and Roy, which could easily have been unconvincing in a lesser writer’s hands. The prose is elegant and the plotting is endlessly smart, and as it builds to a heart-wrenching climax, Berney keeps the reader guessing about the outcome for his characters.

More understated writing comes in the shape of Nickolas Butler’s subtle and heartfelt Little Faith. Set in rural Wisconsin, the book focuses on Lyle Hovde, a contented man approaching old age, whose life is upended when his wayward daughter Shiloh returns home with her son Isaac.

Is it possible to love unconditionally, and if so, what does that mean for the self?

While she’s been away, Shiloh has fallen in with an extremist church and become involved with the charismatic pastor, who believes Isaac has the power to heal the sick. Lyle is initially open-minded about Shiloh’s beliefs, but when Isaac’s health and life are put in danger, he has to make a decision.

This story is used as a tool to examine issues of family and community, and the role that faith and religion can play in both. Is it possible to love unconditionally, and if so, what does that mean for the self? Butler asks these questions with beautiful, rhythmic prose in a tale that tugs at the heartstrings without ever resorting to sentimentality. Wonderful stuff.

Little Faith by Nickolas Butler (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

November Road by Lou Berney (HarperCollins, £8.99)

Illustration: Paul Reid

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