"the world of respectable or even passably decent people"

"the world of respectable or even passably decent people"

Presidio, a novel by Randy Kennedy, is one of those eerie stories in the noir tradition about lost men and women outside society, exiles by temperament and by circumstance. To read about them is both terrifying and exhilarating. A part of me cringes at the unearned good fortune, the sheer random good luck that separates me from them, that allows me to sit inside the walled community of “passably decent” society and peer out fearfully at the feral life they lead. Another part of me finds alluring the stubborn way they survive without the rules and structures I depend on. Could I do that? Would I be strong enough, agile enough? No way. Which leaves me fretful and uncomfortable, gazing at the inside of the jail cell of my days. And yet. It is obvious how the protagonist, Troy Falconer, is walled inside his own solitary confinement. He is not to be envied. Neither is he to be pitied. He is a man who has looked with a clear eye at his options, recognized their smallness and bleakness, and then chosen not to participate. Like a monk, he is in the world but not of it. Unlike the ascetic, he allows himself physical comforts ... food, clothing, shelter in shady motels and, always, a fine car to drive. He is a lover of cars, detailing their makes, models, paint jobs and accessories as carefully and fully as he does his descriptions of any person he encounters. This love of cars, of the highway, of constant movement and rootlessness that, paradoxically, keeps him within the circumscribed tri-state area of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle, is, he says, completely American. “I worry …” he fumes, that if and when he’s ever outed, “people will think I’m some kind of hippie or communist, anti-American in some way that would be a serious misimpression. If my sin is anything it’s being too much of an American -- a throwback to the pioneers …. Or before them, back to the Comanche …”

Troy Falconer is a shape-shifting Hermes, god of thieves and the crossroads. This is the early 1970s, when identity theft is concrete and physical. Troy drifts from motel to motel, targeting petty bourgeois men on the road, “a farm agent or an oil company representative, one of several traveling professionals,” then steals the man blind, clears out his room, takes everything except “a man’s wedding ring, his toothbrush, or his family pictures.” Each theft is a full identity, “the signifiers of his prosperity and belonging”:  wallet, watch, keys, fountain pen, dress Stetson, whatever book or newspaper he might be reading, dopp kit, total wardrobe down to underwear and boots, luggage, and, especially, his car. Troy wears each new self as long as it’s an act, an assumed role. “‘And when the stuff starts to feel too much like mine, I dump it and steal everything again from somebody else,’” he explains to a man offering “to help me disappear, legally.”

But Troy doesn’t need the man’s services. He’s already got his own strategy. “I decided to disappear right where I lived, to become a ghost in the middle of everybody and everything I knew.” Of course the complete irony of this self-made Invisible Man, this solitary nomad, this silent stranger, is that his story revolves entirely around family, spirals ever more tightly into the core of what is lost … the hazily remembered Mother, the failed Father, the doomed little Brother. Also, of course, there is a femme fatale, a “belle dame sans merci,” who drops, without introduction into his walled, solitary life and acts as catalyst to betrayal and destruction. A second version of the Female appears, also uninvited, in the guise of a motherless little girl. Violent consequences ensue.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering? / The sedge has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.  — John Keats, “ La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad”

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering? / The sedge has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.

— John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad”

Randy Kennedy hails from the Texas panhandle, but shed its dust early in his career and made his name in that most cosmopolitan of cities, New York, among those most competitive of journalists, at the New York Times. Obviously he is a man who has succeeded. I find success and failure to be great mysteries. Perhaps Kennedy does as well. Presidio switches, quite effectively, between first and third person narrators, and while in the latter the reader watches teenage Troy have an epiphany: “... he came to see for the first time that he was not going to grow up to join the world of respectable or even passably decent people -- no matter how hard he tried. The truth was that he knew he was never going to feel like trying.”

Image: Michael Hogue - radio tower in Texas, illustration for book review by W.K. Stratton in the Dallas News.

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