At its core, novelist Lou Berney’s moving and elegiac new noir novel, The Long and Faraway Gone, is about damage and how it echoes down through the years—Kirkus calls it “a mystery with a deep, wounded heart.” I found reading it a remarkable experience. In some ways, this bleak, elegant novel transported me back to my own adolescence as the author resurrected the lost world of the American Midwest circa 1986.
The novel interweaves three dramatically different plots but really reverberates from two tragedies from a quarter century ago in Oklahoma City. In the first, six movie theater employees are executed during an armed robbery, leaving a single survivor behind. In the second, a teenage girl vanishes from the state fair, never to be seen again.
Berney, who teaches writing at universities throughout Oklahoma City, explores his home with a studious eye, unearthing the dark secrets under what seems like a relatively benign place. His private eye is Wyatt, a Las Vegas-based cynic who is forced by a case to return to the city where he was the only survivor of the bloody theater massacre. On the other side of that fateful year is Julianna, a fragile and haunted girl who inches closer to unraveling her sister’s disappearance.
Berney’s two previous novels, Gutshot Straight (2011) and Whiplash River (2012) are internationally-set comic thrillers about a retired wheelman, but for this new novel, he stayed close to home.
“Place is always such an important part of noir,” says the author. “It’s in the books I love, starting with Chandler and the Los Angeles that he made his own. But I also wanted to explore a place that hasn’t been done to death. It happily aligned that Oklahoma City hasn’t been picked over. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other great writers from here, like Ross Thomas, but it felt like a fresh landscape. Oklahoma City right now happens to be a much more interesting place than it was 20 years ago. It has changed rapidly and radically in all sorts of different ways since the Murrow bombing.”
Berney also revealed that while the execution of his finely-honed novel is entirely fictional, the emotions behind it are based in real experiences.
“When I was 13 years old, in 1978, there was a robbery at a family steakhouse in Oklahoma City,” he remembers. “Three robbers murdered six employees and put them in the meat locker. Four of them were teenagers. I was working at this hamburger joint just a few blocks away. It had this huge impact on the city but it also had a huge impact on me. Every time I was in our walk-in freezer, I wondered what those other teenagers went through, kneeling there on the floor of the freezer, knowing they were about to get shot. A few years later, I was working in a movie theater. A woman who worked there was the mother of one of two girls who disappeared from the state fair. She kept coming to work after, and I remembered looking at this person who was almost a zombie from grief. Those were powerful moments that stayed with me for years.”
Berney also gives readers an interesting take on these kinds of crimes that are such true violations. Rather than sensationalizing the killers, as so often happens in our modern catalog of horrors, Berney changes focus to give voice to the disappeared.
“I wanted to see what the burden of memory would be like for people who had survived these types of crimes—what it was like for the people who were the victims,” he says. “So often, everyone remembers the name of the person who killed all those people but they don’t remember the names of the victims. I wanted to turn that around in a way, and put the people who were taken away at the center of the story.”
The novel walks a real narrative tightrope, shifting focus from Wyatt to Genevieve and back into the past as each mystery grazes the other but with a refusal to resolve their arcs in easy or comfortable ways.
“I worked really hard to make sure the narrative voices are different,” Berney says. “I do believe that getting the voices of the characters right is of paramount importance. I love finding in a subtle way each character’s voice. There were times, though, when I had to stick with one character. When I was deep into Julianna’s character, there were times I had to skip chapters and write Wyatt later. Then there were other times I was stuck in a voice and I would shift to the other one. Thankfully, when one character wasn’t talking to me, usually the other one was.”
Much like the work of Tana French and Dennis Lehane, two writers that Berney admires, his moody, twisty novel offers a contemplative, sobering portrait of two characters that may not be meant to make it.
“I wanted this idea that they’re both deeply damaged people but they’re approaching it in very different ways,” Berney affirms. “Wyatt doesn’t want anything to do with the past, and Julianna is drowning in it, but at their core, they’re very similar. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t easy. Maybe sometimes the damage is permanent and the most you can hope for is to survive with a little more sunshine in your life.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.