I was loitering at my local Barnes & Noble one day, just wandering, waiting for inspiration to strike. There were a few tables I liked to visit first upon any visit to the bookstore—chiefly, the new fiction arrivals—and I moseyed on over there. An unassuming trade paperback caught my gaze. Dusty blue and orange-brown pastel background, low-key carnival imagery, bold and confident hand-drawn lettering. The title was The Long and Faraway Gone, and the author was Lou Berney. That was my first encounter with an author whom I would go on to collect and consume rather religiously.

Many of you probably started earlier with Berney. He came to initial attention in the mystery/crime genre with the double-punch of his Shake Bouchon series, Gutshot Straight and Whiplash River, and even before that he released a collection of stories called The Road to Bobby Joe and Other Stories. (Kudos if that’s where you jumped onboard!) But it was The Long and Faraway Gone that catapulted Berney to wider recognition—and deservedly so! It was a stunner, thanks largely to its flawed protagonist, who—despite significant odds—finds a way to navigate the maze of a particularly dark and personal mystery. The book won scads of awards (including the Edgar and the Anthony) and has reverberated across the genre since. Berney followed it up with an anomaly—a historical crime thriller on the periphery of the JFK assassination called November Road, which itself brought its creator a bevy of award hardware (including, again, the Anthony).

(Read my comprehensive, career-spanning interview with Lou Berney here!)

Now, Berney has returned to the fertile, slow-burn style of The Long and Faraway Gone with his new novel Dark Ride. This new book serves up a similarly flawed protagonist in 21-year-old Hardy (“Hardly”) Reed, a lazy stoner who becomes wrapped up in a mystery that will ultimately consume him. One day, sitting on a bench, Hardly notices two young children who appear to have been physically abused—specifically, burned by cigarettes, creating telltale scars. After fruitlessly trying to involve the authorities, and becoming increasingly worried about the kids’ plight, Hardly positions himself as their only true hope in this world. He’s the most unlikely of saviors, particularly as we come to understand the true danger to which he’s subjected himself.

This is a very personal quest for Hardly, and the fact of his sudden, powerful interest stuns him. He hasn’t done much with his existence to this point. He comes by his nickname honestly. He’s perfectly content whiling away his days working at a local amusement park’s “fright zone,” scaring the crap out of the guests, and obliterating himself in the evenings with his buddy’s endless supply of medical-grade weed. In fact, the very first line of the book encapsulates Hardly’s life: “I’m lost, wandering and somewhat stoned.” As the book progresses, there’s an affecting sense of Hardly’s coming-of-age, almost despite himself. As if all his instincts are telling him to back off and obey his basic slothfulness—and yet the kids’ faces keep compelling him forward, off the couch. As if, contrary to his very nature, he might actually accomplish something important.

At its core, Dark Ride is the story of Hardly’s coming of age as a responsible, idealistic human being, but equally important is the ragtag group of ambivalent friends and relatives and coworkers and associates and would-be girlfriends who end up guiding and helping Hardly through his journey—from occasional moral support to hard truths to voices of reason to actual physical assistance. There’s Salvador, Hardly’s obsequious “sidekick” and scare partner at the amusement park, a young man who eventually proves himself much more capable and helpful than Hardly might have imagined, and there’s Hardly’s older and much more successful brother (actually, former foster brother) Preston, with whom he shares, shall we say, a complicated sibling relationship. There are Hardly’s bong pals Mallory and Nguyen, dispensers of stoned wisdom, and there’s Felice Upton, a morally gray private investigator who works out an, uh, under-the-table agreement with Hardly to feed him key information. Oh, and who can forget goth-chick Eleanor and her grandma? They’re all essential to Hardly’s “investigation.” The result of this odd assemblage of connections and acquaintances is a theme of community that resonates (for this reader) powerfully in the wake of a global, politically sticky pandemic, as in We’re all gonna have to work together to solve this thing, even though a few of you are gonna resist my efforts the whole damn way. There’s a necessarily haphazard methodology to Hardly’s movements within his own story, bouncing here and there, from opportunity to opportunity, exacerbated by the feeling that nearly everyone he turns to is actively advising him to just knock it off.

But Dark Ride is Hardly’s story through and through. Yes, he’s soon going to discover that he’s in waaaaay over his head, and yet there’s no feasible way he can stop. For once in his life, he’s not going to give up. I won’t spoil what Hardly finally discovers about the kids’ predicament and the environment in which they’re being raised, but it’s suitably repulsive. I will, however, mention that Hardly does ultimately make contact with the children’s mother, and there’s a strange, understandably distrustful dynamic that develops between the two characters. That dynamic sparked a sense of distrust in this reader’s mind—that perhaps the situation was not at all what Hardly imagined. That, perhaps, Hardly had utterly misjudged what he’d seen from the beginning, and that this narrative might play out in a vastly different way than how it actually does. With that in mind, I read the final act of Dark Ride with an odd, suspenseful detachment, not knowing what might come of all Hardly’s drug-addled sturm and drang.

Because, in the end, Dark Ride is an extremely readable thriller that hearkens back to The Long and Faraway Gone with its easygoing, sarcastic protagonist and the very personal quest for justice at its center. Hardly Reed is a protagonist for our time, a young man unconsciously yearning for purpose and finding it, against all odds, not only deep within his shiftless soul but in a world that’s increasingly apathetic.