Monday, February 9, 2015


Some people are really good writers, some are natural storytellers. Lou Berney is both, and he flexes all those muscles in his new standalone novel, The Long and Faraway Gone. The book is many things, but at its core it is crime fiction with a bursting heart, a gut-wrenchingly empathetic look at two survivors and how their respective childhood tragedies shaped their lives.

Berney has drawn such fantastic character studies of Wyatt and Julianna I found myself yearning for answers for their sakes more than my own. As much as the mysteries captivated me, they were the gorgeously set stage that still allowed the journeys of the main players to shine the brightest. Present two compelling investigations and still the character arcs steal the show? That’s some Nolan Ryan-high-hard-cheese-level stuff. In non-sportsball talk, that’s damn fine storytelling.

The tragedies around which The Long and Faraway Gone revolve took place in Oklahoma City in 1986 and both remained, to a large extent, unsolved. Wyatt Rivers, now a private investigator in Las Vegas, is the lone survivor of a deadly robbery at the OKC movie theater where he worked as a teen. Wyatt buried his tragedy and ran from it, changing his name and not looking back. He’s never really settled into one place or a life, but as we meet him he has a steady gig doing work for a casino and a girlfriend he believes he loves and is ready to marry.

Julianna, in contrast, has been obsessed with and defined by the disappearance of her older sister Genevieve. Julianna was twelve when Genevieve, seventeen, left her standing alone at the Oklahoma State Fair for “fifteen minutes” in order to meet up with (i.e., score some drugs from) a hot carny they’d met at the balloon race stand earlier in the evening. Yes, Genevieve could be a strong-willed, sarcastic partyer, but she had pretty much raised Julianna, how could she leave her standing alone and unprotected amidst the masses, never to return?

Wyatt reluctantly returns to Oklahoma to take on an investigation as a personal favor for his employer. Of course, returning home brings back all kinds of memories for Wyatt, and the survivor’s guilt he’s been internalizing for 26 years is forced to the surface. “Why am I still here and all the others gone?,” he wonders to himself over and over again.

Realizing he will never be able to leave the dead behind and stop asking those kinds of questions, Wyatt is drawn to investigate the theater killings that left him a ghost of a person. Meanwhile, Julianna is, as always, mired in and consumed by her obsession with finding out what happened to Genevieve. The Long and Faraway Gone follows each of them in individual chapters (as well as a few lovely crossovers) as they hunt for the truth behind their childhood nightmares and perhaps gain some traction with the grief, guilt, anger and despair that altered their life paths so long and faraway ago.

I was so impressed with the humanity with which Berney treated his characters. It’s a difficult task to write about people acting out of a mindset the reader perhaps can’t (thankfully) relate to, to keep the audience empathetic in the face of irrationality. Julianna, for example, does some really stupid things, and in lesser hands she might have been written off by some readers (this one included). But Berney handles it perfectly by facing it head-on:

Juliana tried not to think about what she was doing…And she saw no value in trying to pretend she was in a position to make a choice about any of this…She knew, and probably Crowley did, too, that she’d give anything, everything, to find out what had happened to Genevieve. So what, then, was she willing to give for the hope of that, no matter how faint it might be?
Anything. Everything. 

The Long and Faraway Gone gives the reader a brightly lit look at open emotional wounds, yet never loses its humanity or humor. Berney himself has a great sense of humor, and I was pleased to see that come through here, despite the serious subject matter. Key to that element is Candace, the single mother with a tough exterior and sharp tongue who Wyatt has come to Oklahoma to help. I adored Candace, and she provided a bit of an emotional ballast in this rough emotional sea.  It is a sea well worth navigating, and I highly recommend it.

STREET SENSE: The Long and Faraway Gone is simply a fantastic piece of work that doesn’t stop at being great crime fiction, but layers on beautiful and tragic character studies as the gravy on the cake (because icing is gross).

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: It was a nice moment of simple, stupid human happiness, the best kind. And yet even as Wyatt sat in the middle of the scene, he remained outside it, apart, as if partitioned off behind special glass that let in light but not heat. He’d experienced this sensation before. It was like looking at a photo of a family gathered around a roaring fire. The fire warmed the people in the photo but not the person holding the photo. You’d have to be crazy to think it ever would.

COVER NERD SAYS: I liked this cover at first sight, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until I read the book. The wistful, longing feelings evoked by both the font and photo with just the tiniest hint of sepia mean all the more once you’ve digested Wyatt’s and Julianna’s stories. This is one I’ll be glad to have on my shelf.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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