I’ve wanted to write about Lou Berney’s books since about sentence three of the first paragraph of his latest novel, The Long and Faraway Gone. I’ve since also read his first novel, 2010’s Gutshot Straight, written during the Hollywood writer’s strike (Berney, perhaps unsurprisingly given the action-packed, character-driven plots he creates, is a screenwriter by trade).
Gone was a book I picked up almost accidentally, the way I’ve found most of my favorite books over the past few years: blindly stumbling over it on the Twitter feed of a crime fiction blog. This is my favorite way to find books these days, because the blogs tend to do both sorting and including – they find the best books from the Big 5 and from the small and, sometimes, obscure presses, and everything in between.
While he undoubtedly has the chops, Berney’s accomplishment isn’t necessarily in the artistry of his words. This isn’t to say his writing is anything less than stellar, but as much as I was tempted at times, I didn’t stop reading to appreciate the wordsmithing. The story was too propulsive to let me pull over and admire the scenery, so to speak.
Which suits me just fine – while I appreciate a finely-tuned sentence as much as any current or former resident of MFA Land, a little of that goes a long way with me these days. Berney’s real artistry doesn’t come in the form of literary navel gazing, but by constructing complex, non-linear plots (though his first, Gutshot Straight, is pretty linear) leavened heavily with doses of humor and heart, neither of which ever distracts from the narrative urgency or forward momentum of the story. He is truly laugh-out-loud funny at moments, downright sentimental at others, but never once is he out of step with the reader.
As a writer, watching someone master that tightrope, where one misstep could easily have plunged the novel into the maudlin or silly, was both a revelation and a little depressing, in the sense that it’s depressing (and electrifying) to read a writer accomplishing things you never will.
He is the master of the tell, the little details that hint at a moment of humor or surprise without giving it away. When one of Gone’s main characters, a detective named Wyatt, senses something amiss in the potential casino employee he’s tailing as part of the man’s pre-employment background check, you know instantly that things aren’t going to go smoothly for the man. When they don’t, Berney’s depiction of Wyatt’s honest disappointment is wonderfully rendered. If there’s a way to be an optimistic cynic, to be both convinced of humanity’s ability to screw up, and yet open to the idea that not all is inevitably lost, these are the sentiments Lou Berney brings to the noir-slash-caper-slash-crime novel in a way I find utterly unique.
At the end of the day, the difference between a Lou Berney novel and so much of the crime and noir fiction out there right now is that I’d actually like to live in Berney’s world. And that, right there, is damn magic.
Buy The Long and Faraway Gone here.