Lee Child did not steer me wrong. I read his glowing review of Randy Kennedy's first novel in the Times and knew that I had to read that book.
He did not exaggerate. Presidio is a terrific example of Texas noir, with an engaging and somewhat unexpected main character who is a professional car thief.
The novel is set in the Staked Plains and borderlands of West Texas in the early 1970s. Among the best things about the book - among a wide choice of very good things - were the photograph-like descriptions of that arid and spare but beautiful landscape of flat plains rolling into mountains, and country roads where you can see for miles and miles. It's a landscape marked by the occasional nodding pump jack, long before the coming of the wind farms that dot the area today. The 1970s were another country; a country without the internet and cell phones and being constantly connected to the outside world; a country where the border between Texas and Mexico is an amiable line of traffic over a wooden bridge where people come and go more or less at will to work or to buy and sell. It's a country that Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry have traversed successfully in many books. Now, Randy Kennedy adds his name to that list.
Troy Falconer is Kennedy's protagonist. He is a vagabond who has been on the road for many years, earning his way as a thief. Specifically, as a car thief. He steals cars, usually from motel guests, often taking their belongings from the motel room as well. He has perfected his technique over several years and has never been caught. He never keeps any car for long, swapping each one for a different vehicle at his first opportunity.
As we meet Troy, he is returning to the rural West Texas town where he grew up to help his younger brother, Harlan. Harlan's wife had recently absconded with all of the money that he had. Not much to be sure, but he wants it - if not her - back. Troy is there to help him find the wife and get the money.
When they head out on the trail of the wife, Harlan's old truck doesn't get them far and Troy's skills as a car thief are immediately pressed into service. He steals a station wagon at a convenience store and the two men head south. What they don't realize at first is that there is a third person in the station wagon. Ten-year-old Martha Zacharias, a Mennonite girl from Mexico, currently living in Texas with her aunt, whose car it was, was lying down on the back seat of the vehicle when it was stolen. She stays quiet and they don't realize she is there until one night, while the men are sleeping outside, she attempts to drive the station wagon away. When they discover her, she demands that they take her to El Paso where she can meet her father. They compromise on taking her as far as Presidio and buying her a bus ticket to El Paso.
The narrative of their trip south is interspersed with the narrative that introduces Martha's family and background and a remarkable set of notes that Troy has written and leaves in the glove compartments of the vehicles he drives. The notes are styled as "Notes for the police" and they consist of a kind of journal of his explanation of what he has done and how he came to be the person that he is. (The first line of the book is: "Later, in the glove box, the police found a binder of notes.") These notes also include some darkly humorous stories of his time on the road and some of the people he has encountered along the way. It is through the notes that we get to know Troy and Harlan and their now dead father and we learn what happened to their mother.
The propulsion of the plot is the brothers' flight to the border with their accidental kidnap victim, looking over their shoulders all the way, expecting to see the police. The plot moves almost organically and those pages keep turning almost by themselves as everything converges at Presidio for the final denouement.
It's hard to believe this is Kennedy's first novel. It is a very accomplished effort with characters that seem real enough that one could reach out and touch them, a landscape with an aridity that one can taste on the tongue, and a plot filled with a comedy of errors that somehow doesn't seem fanciful at all.
All of which brings to mind a line from Troy's "notes": "Just because a story isn't real doesn't mean it isn't true."
My rating: 5 of 5 stars