The stoner thriller canon has a new candidate: Lou Berney's novel 'Dark Ride'

The hero of Lou Berney’s new thriller, “Dark Ride,” isn’t an unreliable narrator so much as a perpetually stoned one, taking bong rips and sparking up his one-hitter and passing along a joint as effortlessly as he breathes.

Hardy Reed, nicknamed “Hardly” (as in hardly ever tries), works as a scarer in a run-down haunted frontier attraction in a city that sounds like Berney’s native Oklahoma City. He did a little college and earned a steady B- average. His best friends, Nguyen and Mallory, spend their days watching reruns of “The Office” and, yes, getting stoned. “It must be exhausting to have so many strong opinions,” he theorizes as he overhears an argument about something unimportant near the novel’s beginning. “I only have mild preferences, and usually not even that.”

“Dark Ride” is the story of how a committed slacker learns to give a damn and the tremendous price he pays for doing so. The process starts so suddenly he doesn’t even see the shift coming (then again, he’s high as a kite). Stuck paying parking tickets in a faceless municipal building, he spots a young boy and girl, maybe 6 or 7, on a bench; he notices marks on their skin that could only be cigarette burns.

Hardly tries to do the right thing through official channels, figuring he can at least file a report, only to discover what countless others have in real life: Bringing a child abuser to justice is a long, winding bureaucratic process.

But he can’t let it go. The experience of actually caring about something has seized a hold of him like a drug, but with the opposite effect of all that weed. He can’t just pass it along, even as it takes him to some increasingly dark and dangerous places. On the way, he finds himself stepping in line with the heroes of other stoner thrillers: Doc Sportello in “Inherent Vice,” Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s revisionist take on “The Long Goodbye.”

The author has a gift for creating characters and stories that infuse even the most sordid corners of humanity with an unforced gentleness. He pulled this off in his fine JFK assassination novel, “November Road,” about a patsy (no, not Lee Harvey Oswald) who befriends a mother and her children as he flees a mob assassin. (That book is in development for the big screen, to be directed by Lawrence Kasdan.)

Berney’s heroes are sucked into opportunities for second chances almost against their will — at least initially. “The absence of free will takes a lot of the stress out of life,” Hardly muses, before his life gets far more stressful. “Go with the flow because the flow knows where to go. You’re where you’re supposed to be.” But as Hardly starts tracking the suspected abuser, one of those punish-the-IRS lawyers with obnoxious TV commercials and a strip mall office, his flow changes irreversibly, and his free will gets a boost. Soon he’s got the broken ribs and busted nose to prove it.

He finds himself assembling a ragtag team of accomplices, most of whom grow more alarmed the deeper he gets into his obsession. There’s Felice, the older real estate agent (and former private investigator) with whom he falls into bed (not too realistically). Eleanor, the caustic, gay goth chick, works at the municipal office and takes a reluctant liking to (or at least sympathy for) Hardly. And Salvador, the socially awkward, over-eager teen, works with him at Haunted Frontier. Berney gives them all room to grow along with Hardly.

He isn’t quite as good with Hardly’s targets, who never really become anything more than the hero’s unknowing catalysts. This isn’t unusual for twist-driven genre fiction, but it’s notable for Berney, who is usually better with character than he needs to be. Then again, this is the story of one man’s transformation from apathetic stoner to avenging angel, and if it gets tunnel vision, it also keeps the pages turning at a rapid clip. Berney’s thrillers have more weight than most, and more soul, and ‘Dark Ride” lives up to his established standards.

The author also really knows how to end things. The final stretch of the story makes for breathless reading; as the cascade of action pours forth you wonder how long Berney can sustain the tension, and just how far over his head Hardly has gotten.

Berney writes one-off novels, not series; he’s free to take his characters where he likes without worrying about setting up the next book. In ”Dark Ride” he takes full advantage of that freedom. The novel doesn’t shirk the high stakes it establishes. Hardly has one chance to pull this off. It’s a big risk for a guy accustomed to disappearing in a cloud of smoke. His trip is ultimately about what it means to become an engaged human being, and the question of whether getting off life’s sidelines is worth the risk.

Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.

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