In Presidio, Randy Kennedy’s debut novel, the landscape of the Panhandle, West Texas, and the Mexican border, with its caliche and shin oaks and pumpjacks and ocotillo, brushes alongside the plot like an intricate central character. It’s the early 1970s, and we meet Tory Falconer, a petty criminal who checks in and out of motels in different cars and clothes, assuming identities stolen from livestock judges and personal injury lawyers as he weaves his way in zigzags and ladders across the featureless, empty northern part of the state. On a visit to his hometown to find his brother, Troy reminisces about “growing up in a place as flat as this, where the sweep of the sky is so big that, lying on your back and looking up into it, you sometimes experience the sensation that you will come loose from the earth, and fly up with nothing to catch on to.”
What starts off feeling a little like a B-movie offering the inverse of Western romance in the company of losers and lowlifes quickly transforms into a road trip-cum-thriller defined by startling shifts and turns. Tumbling accidentally into the mix comes a young Mennonite girl, 11 years old, ethereally blond, strange, and strong, whose fate is now entangled with the brothers’, her purity a foil to Troy’s amorality. Like a herding rope, the plot unfolds in taut scenes juxtaposed with wonderful loops of description, flashback, and spare dialogue that occasionally swells into flashes of revelation, all of it grounded in a palpable sense of place.
Kennedy, a former New York Times Metro reporter and art critic, and now the director of special projects at the multicity Hauser and Wirth gallery, spent ten years writing the book. And it is not, as it easily could have been, a novel written by someone simply enamored of the idea of the West received from movies (Two-Lane Blacktop, The Last Picture Show) and photographs (Stephen Shore, William Eggleston) though Kennedy acknowledges these as inspirations. But he is the real deal, the son of a telephone lineman from a tiny Texan town that was in essence, he says “another planet.” Though painfully bored there in his youth, he has found its resonance returning to him in adulthood, to our benefit.
The novel, blurbed by Larry McMurtry, no less, features bad faith, bad women, and broken men. “I think maybe he just ran out of road,” is how Troy’s brother Harlan describes the pass he has come to, a classic line if there ever was one. “I like old-fashioned things, like melody and plot and rhyme,” Kennedy says. “I wanted the book to feel in some degree like a Western. There are archetypal Western plots that usually involve somebody coming back to town, or somebody going out on the road and looking for something.” Not content to follow one of those models, Kennedy draws on that legacy in original ways —and gives us both.
Below, Kennedy answers some questions about Presidio.
How did the idea for this book come to you?
For many years, I'd wanted to write a character who was a professional car thief in the West, a modern-day incarnation of a horse thief, the lowest kind of criminal in the Old West, because stealing a horse meant you stole someone's entire means of livelihood. Horse thievery was a capital crime. Car theft in a place as vast the Texas Panhandle is also a pretty vile, low-down kind of crime. My thief, Troy Falconer, is a wayward soul, an outsider, someone who lives very much on the margins of a society, and in a place as isolated and rural as West Texas, the margins are profoundly marginal. Stealing cars is, in a sense, a way for Troy to cement fully his identity as an outcast.
Tell me about your interest in the West, both in its geography and the sense of dereliction you portray.
I grew up in a farming and ranching town in the Texas panhandle called Plains, population about 1,400. My father's family had been from that part of Texas for generations, struggling to make ends meet as dryland cotton farmers. So I soaked up the nature of the place through my father and his family, his nine sisters (my very voluble aunts) in particular. I was interested in writing about that land not only because I knew it so well, down to my core, but because I think of it as being bleakly beautiful and quite strange, as strange in its way as Kafka's Prague or Borges's Argentina. It was one of the places where the last pockets of the American frontier finally closed, when the Comanche tribes were forced off the land and the buffalo herds slaughtered by white settlers, so it also carries a heavy load of history, of myth and violence, in its seeming emptiness.
Besides a 1926 memoir by Jack Black, many of the inspirations you cite in the book’s acknowledgements are photographs and movies from the early 70s. What led you to set the book in that era?
I was young child in the 1970s, so it's when my first memories of that place and of my family and of myself were formed. It's as if I'm setting the book at the beginning of my own consciousness of the world. But I'm also attracted to the 1970s as a very consequential era in American and European history, when the revolutionary energy of the late 1960s had to find its way along in the muddled aftermath of so much idealism. The limbo feel of the 70s produced so much great art - movies, books, land art and conceptual art - that matters to me today.
The story is rooted in the roads, roadside motels, small towns, and landscapes of the Texas panhandle and far West. Is this a place you know well?
I know the panhandle extremely well, and I schooled myself much more deeply in its history and geography and flora and fauna in the writing of the book. The roadside landscape is one I came to know on long car trips my family would take each summer from West Texas to Seattle, to visit my mother's family. The trips, in a huge old white Chevrolet station wagon, would take days, through New Mexico and Arizona and Utah and then into the Pacific Northwest. The motels and diners along the way were extremely memorable, as exotic as my life got in those years.
There's also a lot of mid-century car porn in the novel. Do you love old cars?
I have to admit I really don't have any deep love for classic cars or car culture. I haven't owned one for more than 27 years, since I moved from Texas to New York. And even in Texas, I didn't really care much about what I drove, as long as it could get me where I needed to go. But if you want to write about a car thief, you need to know your cars. And the muscle cars of the late 1960s and 1970s - even the pedestrian cars of those years - are tremendous and very specific kinds of artifacts that say a lot about how America saw itself in that era, before the gas crisis and the realization that we couldn't all keep driving such monsters anymore.
What drew you to the subplot about the Mennonite community in the West and northern Mexico?
I grew up around groups of Mennonite farm workers, who were most likely families that had moved north into Texas from the large colonies of Mennonites who came to settle in the Chihuahua region of Mexico in the early years of the previous century, looking for freedom from government interference in their lives. The Mennonite children did not go to public schools but I saw them at big town events like rodeos and parades and at the local grocery store. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and I knew that Mennonites were Anabaptists, whose beliefs were not so far from my own. But the differences meant that their creed shaped their lives in profound ways, isolating them from the rest of society where they lived. This isolation, in an already isolated place, interested me deeply and it still does. I did an extensive amount of reading about Mennonite history and belief as I wrote the book.
Your (anti)hero, Troy, is a petty thief, constantly on the run, uninterested in possessions, other than those he briefly makes use of. What fascinates you about him?
I wanted to try to imagine someone who attempts an escape from late capitalism, from defining ourselves primarily through things, through our success or failure as consumers. I thought of Troy as a kind of holy fool, a man who, in trying to find meaning in his life, rejects all of society's expectations and paradigms but then doesn't have the courage of his convictions to go fully where they lead - to a monastery or a mountaintop. He disappears right in the middle of where he lives, a feat that one could easily have accomplished in the 1970s in West Texas. Trish Todd, my editor at Touchstone, once asked me for a one-sentence description of my novel and I told her it was about late capitalism and religious longing. She wisely told me that I should probably come up with a snappier synopsis.
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