Reader’s Notebook, 1/29/19

November Road – Lou Berney
As with Tana French, I returned to another author that I read last November who gave me immense reading pleasure. Expectations for this one were cranked up a little, not just because I enjoyed his The Long and Faraway Gone so much but because of the historical event this book is anchored to: the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

It would be wrong to say this book is about the Kennedy assassination. However, the events in Dallas are the prompts for two of the three major characters in the book.

One is Frank Guidry, a suave, well-connected member of the New Orleans mafia. When news of Kennedy’s assassination breaks, Guidry is given a task to handle in Texas: pick up a car he had dropped off in Dallas a week earlier, take it to Houston, and dispose of it. Other members of his organization start disappearing and Guidry connects the dots: his boss, Carlos Marcello, was behind the assassination and is cleaning up the loose ends left and after Guidry takes care of the car – which was apparently the get-away car for the shooter[1] – he is next. So he does his job, but then slips away and embarks for Las Vegas and a rival boss he hopes can save him.

Meanwhile in a small Oklahoma town, a young woman named Charlotte is also beginning a trek west. Sick of a rural town that won’t let her be anything more than a secretary and a drunken husband who is harmless but also hopeless, she and her two daughters pack up their suitcases and the family dog and set out for an aunt’s home in LA.

As you would expect, Charlotte and Guidry’s paths cross and an opportune time for both. Guidry and Charlotte make it to Vegas, followed soon after by the hitman sent to finish Guidry. There are plenty of tense moments in the coming days; it would all be over quickly had the Vegas mob not placed a temporary hold on the hitman. The resolution is a bit unexpected: Guidry has a bigger heart and Charlotte is more calculating that you would have expected. Oh, and there’s a very creepy but satisfying shoot out.

This is a decent book. I didn’t like it as much as The Long and Faraway Gone, perhaps because it hits fairly familiar territory. Unlikely companions on a road trip. People from different worlds falling in love. A good guy from a bad world fleeing a legitimately evil pursuer.

Berney does a nice job with all of this, and there are plenty of fine moments. But it is nothing unique.


How Democracies Die – Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
I try to shun political books these days as they generally get me all worked up and feeling more helpless about the state of the world than I already do. But this book came with a lot of recommendations from people I respect, so I gave it a shot.

And it left me feeling worked up and hopeless.

But at least it tries to explain how we got where we are today.

The authors argue that while blame for most of the current political mess we’re in can be blamed on Republicans – notably on Newt Gingrich who utterly transformed the party into a deeply conservative organ that adopted slash and burn tactics in the early-to-mid 1980s – it isn’t just parties and people who got us here.

They argue that is is the rapidly changing demographics of the US and, ironically, the expansion of the electorate brought about by the civil rights movement of the 1960s that set us on this path. Once upon a time all politicians, regardless of ideology or party identification, where white men in the upper half of the socio-economic world. Party ID was as much about where you were from as what you believed. So there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. And these groups often reached across the aisle to like-minded members of the opposite party to get things done. That was possible, the authors say, because they all were white men and, thus, could find ways not only to get along, but to sell the compromise to their supporters back home.

As the electorate has become less white, less Christian, and less moored in old-time traditions, so, too, have our representatives. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats disappeared in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Suddenly the opposition party believed different things, represented different people, and often looked different than you and your caucus did. Power came from sticking with your party and doing everything you could to limit the power of the other side. So election laws were changed to reduce participation by minority groups, districts manipulated to protect incumbents, and the judiciary was politicized in a way not done in the first 200-plus years of the Republic. The legitimacy of elections was questioned and the press was pilloried as a biased, enemy of the people.

All of this came well before our current Buffoon in Chief; he’s just a master at exploiting it all.

So how do we fix it? Levitsky and Ziblatt offer ideas, but I have zero confidence they will work. We are stuck with the mess we’re in and will be for a long time. All over the country there are elected officials who see how the Buffoon managed to win the presidency and realize if he can pull that off at the national level, it will be even easier at the state and local level. And there are plenty of people out there with huge wallets and bigger egos who are going to take runs at the presidency using the same tactics he used.

Until large swaths of both parties and the electorates who support them decide to return to a system where compromise and cooperation are more important than destruction and the subversion of democracy, we’re going to be stuck in the toxic swamp we are currently in. And, given how the rest of our society runs these days, there’s no reason to believe there are enough people out there with the will and strength to make it happen.


  1. Not Lee Harvey Oswald, according to the story.  ↩