NEW YORK — For crime writer and Oklahoma native Lou Berney, there's something special about the drive out West.
"I love that stretch of I-40, what used to be Highway 66, from Oklahoma City to Arizona," he told The Associated Press during a recent interview. "I remember hearing about the painted desert when I was a kid, and thinking, 'Oh my god, there's a painted desert somewhere!' It was so magical. The petrified forest. It had this myth for me."
People travel in Berney's books, although not always because they want to do so. "November Road," his new novel, is set in 1963. It tells of an Oklahoma woman on the run from her husband, an underling to New Orleans-based mobster Carlos Marcello, who is trying to make himself vanish in the wake of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. They're both heading West, and encounter each other in Las Vegas, where JFK was known to spend some free time.
The book is drawn in part from the author's life: Berney, 54, had often wondered what might have happened had his mother, whom he calls the "most ferociously intelligent woman" he ever knew, left his alcoholic father.
"What if?" says Berney, drinking coffee at a Manhattan café on a warm fall afternoon. "What if my mother had made a different choice at some point in her life?"
"November Road" is a story of one woman's dream for a better life and a tour of the grim underside of American life that the Kennedy assassination made unavoidable, as if the whole country was trapped inside a crime novel. Anticipation is strong, with The Washington Post calling "November Road" one of the "most distinctive, unexpected crime novels of recent years" and Kirkus praising how it "brilliantly reflects these times of both disillusionment and hope." The new book follows what was his most acclaimed work, "The Long and Faraway Gone," a thriller set in Oklahoma that won an Edgar Award in 2016 for best crime novel. His previous books include the Edgar-nominated "Whiplash River" and "Gutshot Straight."
Berney, who teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Oklahoma, was born a year after Kennedy's death, but lived in a family caught up in JFK's myth. On family trips through neighboring Texas, his father would drive through Dealey Plaza in Dallas and point to the windows where Lee Harvey Oswald fired from. His mother skipped work to see one of JFK's speeches.
The Kennedy assassination has long been an obsession for fiction writers, from Don DeLillo and "Libra" to Stephen King and "11/22/63." Novels also have been a good medium for speculation about who might have killed him. Charles McCarry's classic "The Tears of Autumn" pins it on the Vietnamese, a response to the U.S.-backed coup against the country's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, three weeks before Kennedy's death. Berney thinks Marcello, suspected by some assassination theorists, an ideal culprit.
"He's the one mobster no one knew about at the time," he says. "If anybody could get away with this, I thought it would be Marcello. There was a sign in his office that read 'Three can keep a secret if two are dead.'"
Berney cites Kate Atkinson, Elmore Leonard and Megan Abbott as influences, but he didn't begin as a crime novelist. He studied communications and journalism at Loyola University and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from which he received an MFA. He remembered that while in graduate school a professor saw him with a Leonard novel and said, "Don't read that trash." He now wonders how much time he might have saved had the professor encouraged him.
Berney received early literary acclaim. His first book, "The Road to Bobby Joe and Other Stories," came out in 1991 and brought him praise from The New York Times as a writer of "tremendous range, one whose characters — a Laotian busboy, an aging wino, a rock band's groupie — often walk themselves up to the edge of a moral abyss." But his next publication didn't come for nearly two decades. He spent four years working on a novel and couldn't find a publisher. He spent another three years on a different novel and tried writing screenplays. No luck. He thought himself a failure and was ready to give up, when he decided to try one last time and wrote "Gutshot Straight," about a mobster who leaves a California prison and soon finds himself in new kinds of trouble.
"It was like ... 'I have nothing to lose at this point,'" he said of the book, which came out in 2010. "I want to write something that's going to be fun to write and also will connect to me as a reader: I want to write something I want to read. I think that was, for me, the switch going off, because I loved crime fiction."