Lou Berney, The Long and Faraway Gone (William Morrow, March 2015)
Review by Lee Horsley
Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone is a superb take on the American tradition of tough, witty investigative fiction. Two separate narratives intertwine, only briefly intersecting but sharing the powerfully realized themes of loss, memory, the search for answers and the guilt of the survivor. The point of intersection – Oklahoma City – is vividly evoked, both its changing landscape and its communal sense of a past trauma shared and remembered, “a small town at heart” where, after the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building, “everyone knew someone who had been killed or maimed in the blast or someone who’d descended into hell to help with the rescue.”
The stories of The Long and Faraway Gone are told from the perspectives of two very different investigators, Wyatt and Julianna, each of whom is struggling with traumatic memories that have haunted them for more than two decades. Wyatt Rivers, who more than holds his own in a long line of wise-cracking private eyes, “had yet to figure it out, the central mystery of his life, why so many people assumed, automatically, that he was being a smart-ass. People he’d never met before, who didn’t know him from Adam.” He is hired to investigate a case that takes him – very unwillingly – back to his home town of Oklahoma City, where he cannot avoid reliving and ultimately investigating the far more disturbing central mystery of his own life. In 1986, when he was a teenager, he was the only one to survive a violent robbery at the movie theater where he worked. Again and again, he feels compelled to relive the night of the massacre and to ask himself, “Why am I still here and all the others gone?”
Berney’s other central character, Julianna Rosales, was only twelve years old when her life was transformed by an equally random experience of incomprehensible loss. Having taken Julianna to the Oklahoma State Fair, her older sister, Genevieve, asks her to wait for her briefly. As it grows darker and darker, Julianne continues to wait, but her sister never returns: “Why did Genevieve do it? How could she do it? How could she leave Julianna alone on the curb outside the rodeo arena, dusk falling fast, and never come back? Julianna would never know.” Like Wyatt, Julianna is tormented by the thought of not knowing, and obsessively pursues any leads she can find.
The Long and Faraway Gone is a riveting novel – sharply written, subtle, funny and moving. There are answers to the questions raised, but not altogether tidy and reassuring ones. There is no easy, revealing convergence of the two plot lines. Wyatt and Julianna, who meet twice during the course of their investigations, converse briefly, but only to share fragmentary memories of Oklahoma City in the mid-80s. These are not memories of the mysteries they are trying to unravel but simply recollections of intensely felt moments, like the time they both saw the same tornado – in Julianna’s memory, “so close it was almost on top of us. It was right there. It had been there all along, and we didn’t know it.” The powerfully experienced memory animated in this scene resembles, for both of them, their ultimate realizations about what happened in the long-ago tragedies of their lives – something that was there all along, but not recognized until seen in the mind’s eye with a sudden clarity. The effect of such moments of recall is to realign facts as they had imagined them to be, allowing them to come to terms with the past and with the possibility of moving on, however tentatively and painfully.