By Randy Kennedy
303 pp. Touchstone. $26.
My first reaction to “Presidio” was to wonder about the author’s name. For a noir novel about hopeless criminals on the run, “Randy Kennedy” seemed too good to be true. I assumed it was made up. The only Randy Kennedy I knew about was a guy I had read for years in The New York Times, a journalist who breathed the rarefied air of the international art business. As it happens, I have a friend who covers the same beat for Bloomberg, so maybe I feel protective of the genus. I found myself wondering how the art guy from The Times would feel about someone borrowing his byline for a slick thriller set in rural Texas more than 45 years ago.
Then I read “Presidio” and — review spoiler alert — found a fluent, mordant, authentic, propulsive narrative, wonderfully lit from within by an intriguing main character. Before writing this review, I found out what I could about the author. Always safer that way. Maybe Randy was a woman. I wouldn’t want to use the wrong pronouns. But no, it turned out Randy wasn’t a woman. It turned out Randy was the art guy from The Times after all, only now he’s the special projects editor for a New York gallery. This is his first novel and it left me hoping he writes many more.
“Presidio” is set in the Texas borderlands in the very early 1970s, which feels like a long time ago. The landscape against which the story unfolds seems both strange and familiar. Strange because this is Texas before the internet, before personal computers, before cellphones, before connectivity. The impression given is of an inconsistent patchwork of small municipalities and tiny police departments with vast voids in between, a land with miles of brush and the occasional nodding pump jack and endless county roads, along which all manner of characters can lurk and hide. In particular, the border with Mexico feels different. It’s an amiable and permeable symbolic barrier through which people come and go at will — to work, to buy and sell, to hide, to disappear.
But the Texas of the novel is also familiar because it’s at a tectonic moment, on the cusp between old and new, that has been written about before, and very well. Kennedy rises to the challenge and succeeds so well that both Larry McMurtry and James Lee Burke have offered their praise.
Kennedy was raised in small-town Texas, which some will feel made his task easier — but others will know made it harder. A writer must find the inner core of his story, and to get there through the obstacles of habit and familiarity adds extra yardage.
Kennedy’s various narrative voices sound like those of taciturn individuals who may never have heard a complete sentence except in church, who are now somehow compelled to speak, as if on the witness stand, at first hesitant, then finding sudden new pleasure in expressing themselves: “Early on I made the decision to confine myself to the wide open of the High Plains because it was the place I knew best and because it has always given me the comforting illusion that I can see whatever’s coming at me from 40 miles.” Or: “He went by the house at full speed and traveled a hundred yards more before he took the car gently into the ditch and onto a harvested milo field alongside a windbreak ridge thick with tumbleweeds snagged in mesquite and shinnery oak.”
Or, more particularly, a sentence late in the book that describes wrecks in a junkyard: “Seeing the damage to each of the cars it was impossible to keep from imagining what had happened to the people riding in them at the time of the calamity.” That “calamity” is a triple-play word choice. It nails the period, the location and the halting country-polite tone. No other word in the English language would work better there.
All of the above would make for a happy recommendation, but I haven’t gotten to the best part yet, which is Troy Alan Falconer, Kennedy’s main character, whose flight to the border with his brother — and the young woman they accidentally kidnap — directs the movement of the plot. Inevitably, he’ll be called a car thief. But he isn’t really. Or not only, or not deliberately. He’s a sensitive soul, at times bitterly cynical, at times charmingly naïve, always courteous, in the grip of a desperate compulsion to own nothing at all. To get dressed and get around, he has to borrow, usually from motel rooms when the guest is in the shower or at the pool. “I know you must want to understand how a person could come to this,” Troy tells us. “I just know I woke up one morning and the world wasn’t the same and I couldn’t find a way back to the way it was before.” His coping strategy is a mixture of pride and shame: “Sometimes I go into post offices and leaf through binders of state posters, looking to see if there’s a sketch resembling me, a description of what I’ve done — but there never is.” Is he disappointed? Or boasting? Or both?
Much of Troy’s story is told through a type of confession, which begins with the book’s terse opening line: “Later, in the glove box, the police found a binder of notes. It said. …”
Kennedy was betting you’d read on. You should.
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