Picture a hot Oklahoma City summer. The year is 1986, and two teenagers are living their lives. 15-year-old Michael has his first summer job, as an usher at the local movie theater, and he’s loving it. He’s got friends, and even a girl. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Genevieve is struggling with substance abuse while she’s saddled with taking care of her 12-year-old sister, Julianna. Then tragedy strikes twice … and Michael is the lone survivor of a mass killing at the theater and Genevieve leaves Julianna on her own as dusk falls at a local fair… and is never seen again.
Twenty-six years later, both kids are grown up and still dealing with the impact of their tragic pasts. Michael’s family left town shortly after the killings, moving to San Diego, where he started using his middle name, Wyatt. He’s hopscotched across the country since then and is now a private investigator in Las Vegas. Julianna – now a nurse – remained in Oklahoma City, often hears her sister’s voice in her head, and is haunted by the mystery of her sister’s disappearance.
Berney tells both stories, Wyatt’s and Julianna’s, in the fall of 2012, with frequent loop-backs into the past as each of them recall that fateful summer of 1986. Wyatt’s back in Oklahoma City because he took a case as a favor to a friend. He’s stuck trying to figure out who is harassing Candace Kilkenny, a former Vegas bartender who inherited The Landing Run (a bar and live music venue) from a customer. But Candace is a trooper, she has an amazing little girl, and Wyatt transitions pretty quickly from going through the motions to full-on commitment. Not surprisingly, being back brings forth his feeling of guilt at being the only survivor and he can’t help poking the ashes of the previous crime in hopes of figuring out why.
In the meantime, Julianna learns that the man long suspected of killing her sister has surfaced after many years. She plots to find him and force him to tell her the truth. Like Wyatt, she wonders why – why did Genevieve leave her? What happened to her?
The perspective transitions from one protagonist to another, and particularly fun for the reader are the scenes where Wyatt and Julianna interact. Wyatt is mugged and gets stitched up in Julianna’s Emergency Room, and we see this scene from one perspective, then the other. Berney doesn’t take obvious tack of bringing the protagonists together and merging the plots. He takes them separately, but both mysteries are solved in a similar way. Both Wyatt and Julianna gain new information that puts what they already knew into perspective, allowing them to put all the pieces together. In the same way, Wyatt gets to the bottom of the Candace Kilkenny case.
I’ve got to say “good luck” to the other nominees, because The Long and Faraway Gone is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. The plot is complex, but not unbelievably so, and Berney doesn’t cheat the reader. Pacing is excellent – Berney often switches from one POV to the other just as something we really want to learn is about to happen.
I’m a nut for good characterization. And Berney’s characters are So! Amazingly! Real! (A nod to Candace, who has a habit of speaking with exclamation point when she is really sincere and wants to make! A! point!) Even minor characters are well-drawn. Violence, when it happens, is neither noir nor comic book. People in danger are really in danger, and you care about them.
Plus, there’s a lot of heart. Both Wyatt and Julianna ache, but do the best they can anyway. What they learn in October 2012 helps heal the aches. You know they’ll remember, but now they can move on.
So, giant thumbs up for The Long and Faraway Gone. I gave a copy to a good friend for her birthday, gave my copy to my dad to read, bought a second copy for myself on Kindle and am currently forcing my husband to get it from the library.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings: Best Paperback Original
- The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney