This year I set some goals, including returning to some form of creative writing and reading more fiction novels, two activities I used to love. Between the daily, client-centric work that I enjoy so much at FischTank, and the fact that reading non-fiction doesn’t always give me the break from reality that I so desperately need, writing a book review seems like a 2 birds 1 stone kind of deal…so I’m going to give it a shot.
For many years, I devoured fiction novels from the likes of John Grisham, James Patterson, Agatha Christie, Dean Koontz (Shippensburg alumni unite!), Stephen King, Dick Francis, and several other high profile writers, as well as a number of less recognized but equally talented authors. Lee Childs’ series on Jack Reacher possesses my favorite character, and Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen is probably my all-time favorite fiction piece. Yes, I’m a sucker for the wiry but hardened drifter with a heart of gold and a score to settle.
Where was I going with this? Ah yes. The book I read last week, The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney, has so many character elements that remind me of Tourist Season and some of my other favorites, but is unique in its balance of the present and the past.
Set in two time periods (1986 and 2012) in Oklahoma City, the book has some dark moments with elements of satire throughout, just not as in-your-face as some writers do. Two tragedies in 86’ — the murders of half a dozen theater employees and the disappearance of a troubled teenage girl from a state fair — form the past for the two protagonists, Wyatt and Julianna. Their two unique stories of loss haunt them into continued pursuits of the truth relating to the incidents of 1986, and while their paths only cross twice and without significant consequence in the present, they both experience a wild chase.
Wyatt, a sarcastic private investigator returning to his hometown of OKC for the first time in decades, is hired help a wiry music club owner figure out who got pigeons to shit all over her car, broke into her bar only to turn everything upside down without breaking it, and other strange incidents. When the pranks turn physical and threatening, Wyatt finds himself pushing the lead singer (of a band that on paper reminds me of The Flaming Lips, or anything with dedicated faux hippie following) into a canal, and stabbing a masked dude in the leg with his pen, after said dude beat him with a fence post. While helping his client, Wyatt confronts his demons and the mystery behind the movie theater massacre in 86’, but only once he’s gotten drunk at enough hotels and pressed the right buttons.
Julianna, by contrast, is solely focused on the past and the unsolved disappearance of her older sister, pursuing the truth at all costs. Her tenacity, and the odd respect and strange interactions she develops with the man who is really the only suspect, makes each chapter with her a fast-paced read. Head into a biker bar and buy a pistol off a drunk lady? Sure. Cook the career felon a Thanksgiving dinner in exchange for information on her sister? Why not? Her life savings, job as a nurse, and any sense of safety go out the window and makes the reader genuinely curious as to whether or not she’ll survive until the end of the book.
The Long and Faraway Gone has some dark moments, but there is plenty to laugh about. Wyatt and his observations are funny, with a sort of straight faced authenticity that reminds me of Brian Keyes in Hiaasen’s Tourist Season. Julianna’s game of chicken with the man she believes killed her sister and her obsessive nature make the reader reflect on their own ambitions when everything must be put on the line. The Oklahoma City references are historically accurate (I had to look a few of them up to know that), which was interesting and makes me now want to visit OKC for something other than a Thunder game or a steak. The characters and the city are underdogs, forgotten and sometimes ugly, but definitely still fighting. Once again, this reminds me of some Hiaasen themes and characters.
What was my favorite part of the book? How certain sights, sounds, smells, and sensations for both Wyatt and Julianna brought them back to their past. We’ve all shared this feeling. Sometimes people and places spark memories that are sad, happy, angry, and exhilarating. As the book makes clear about these reflections, is that even when depressing, going back can help you go forward.
A nice thing about author Lou Berney is that he doesn’t have dozens of books out (yet!), so my wallet won’t be that much lighter after I buy his other three books.