My Novel Was Shaped by the Unforgettable Way These Artists Saw America
About a dozen years ago, I began to write a novel about a troubled wandering car thief, and for even more years, I had known where this thief would roam—through the part of the country where I was raised, the endless flatlands of the Texas panhandle, the region of the state known as the Staked Plains, or Llano Estacado.
The story would be true in spirit to the land as I knew it: desolately beautiful, eerie in its immensity and isolation, dry, lonesome, windblown, politically and socially conservative, and, at least for the book-loving teenager I was, devoid of much in the way of high or even pop culture, with the significant exception of music (Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, the Flatlanders, Terry Allen, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy).
Until cable came along, it was tough even to score a functioning television signal in my hometown, Plains, and the lone movie theater was—like the one in Larry McMurtry’s Thalia—shuttered. My book would be about how I remembered myself when I was growing up, all but disconnected from the urbanizing currents of postmodern American life.
But on the way to writing it, something strange happened. About the time I began, I’d started to write for the New York Times about art, a subject I plowed into as a passionate neophyte, trying desperately to fill the truck-sized holes gaping through even my basic knowledge.
Stephen Shore, Room 316, Howard Johnson’s, Battle Creek, Michigan, July 6, 1973, 1973. © Stephen Shore. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.
My early education had involved little in the way of art history; the 20th century was a virtual void. But then, in college, I happened into the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and after moving to New York in 1991, my brother-in-law, the artist Larry Krone, introduced me to his art world—disorientingly electric places like Exit Art, Artists Space, the New Museum, White Columns, and P.S. 122. Purely because of my position at the Times, I was granted entrée to the studios of dozens of groundbreaking artists whose time I had no real business taking: Nan Goldin, Richard Prince, Ida Applebroog, Isa Genzken, Bruce Nauman, Paul McCarthy, Valie Export, Carl Andre, Kerry James Marshall, and several—like John Chamberlain, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden—who are now no longer among us.
Slowly, and without my realizing it at first, pieces of the day job began to slip into what I was doing at night, from about midnight to 2 a.m., when I worked on the novel which would become Presidio. Initially, the seepage was visual. I needed concrete detail about the look of the West—specifically from the years in which the book is set, the late 1960s and early 1970s, along the road, in the motel rooms and café booths where my thief spends his days. Stephen Shore’s photographs from “Uncommon Places” and “American Surfaces” had already begun to supplant my own memories of the West in the 1970s, when I was a child, so it felt only natural to turn to them for guidance. Eventually, I began to inhabit specific pictures fully as settings, both in homage to Shore and because doing so grounded me more deeply in reality—and history—than half-remembered scraps of my own. A motel room where my character falls ill is—down to the Japanese wallpaper and gold brocade bedspread—the one rented and photographed by Shore in Room 316, Howard Johnson’s, Battle Creek, Michigan, July 6, 1973 (1973). My thief’s preferred breakfast, where available, is the short stack with whipped butter, half cantaloupe, and cold milk (in a wavy diner glass) from Shore’s Breakfast,Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973 (1973), one of the most indelible depictions of a meal in post-war art.
Naturally, I had to enlist William Eggleston, too, because of his light—light that feels somehow irretrievable, like the color of light from my youth. I needed the sun-dappled boy from his Untitled (Supermarket boy with carts), Memphis, 1965 (1965) to shoulder a row of shopping carts into a rural grocery on a Texas fall afternoon. In less specific ways, the work of other photographers played a part—particularly the raw, humane honesty of Goldin, Danny Lyon, and Jim Goldberg.
A few years into the writing, Alec Soth published Broken Manual (2010), a powerful book based on his years of work among American dropouts, objectors, eremites, and survivalists, people trying to disappear themselves from society for reasons both understandable and abhorrent. My thief, Troy Falconer, was likewise trying to flee conventional conceptions of contentment and progress, to give up identity and possessions, after suffering a breakdown. Finding Soth’s book made me feel as if I were tapping into something, a shared wavelength, a feeling reinforced around the same time when I came across Seth Price’s strange little black hardcover, How to Disappear in America (2008), an “appropriation” by Price culling various how-to advice from off-the-gridder websites and tracts.
Concurrences like these became important to me. Other writing and art began to chime unexpectedly and subtly make their way in. This wasn’t because of any interest in Joycean puzzle-making. And the references didn’t seem like appropriation to me—they still don’t. But they did have something to do with the feeling Richard Prince articulates in his 1977 essay “Prior Availability,” where he writes about how “certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them, than when we’re home alone, and play the same records ourselves.”
At its most basic, it was, maybe, about understanding how artificial it was to think of certain experiences as not belonging to me simply because I had soaked them into my skin by reading them, listening to them, looking at them on a wall or a screen. This might have been just capitulation to an over-mediated existence. Maybe it was warmed-over existentialism. But it felt weirder, and older. There’s a line from the Swiss writer Robert Walser’s The Walk, published in 1917, that I’ve always loved in this regard: “I was no longer myself, I was another, yet it was on this account that I became properly myself.”
There’s no Richard Prince foregrounded in the novel or even easily discernible beneath the surface. But the way he reads the subtext of certain American things—pulp fiction sharing the same high-literary register with Ginsberg and Plath, with muscle-car design and stand-up comedy routines—ends up hovering over my descriptions of roadside landscape. In one instance, I also used him for the make of a stolen car: a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, the one driven by Barry Newman in the movie Vanishing Point, which Prince told me several years ago I needed to watch. (“‘Do you see what I see?’ asks the deejay.”) A few other stolen cars got art-world harmonics, as well, mostly just for my entertainment; for example, a black 1950 Ford Business Coupe taken from a farmhouse halfway through the book is the make Robert Frank drove across the United States beginning in 1955 when he shot “The Americans.”
Once in a while, a borrowing came in wholesale. I thank the late, great Chris Burden in my acknowledgments for the loan of a good name. Burden’s 1980 video gem Big Wrench is a nonfiction account of his wayward obsession with a truck he owned briefly in Venice, California. The truck’s seller, as the artist relates, was a small-time drug smuggler named Jim Quaintance, though Burden later discovered this was not the man’s real name. The automotive association and the pseudonymous con were more than enough for me. In Presidio, my Quaintance runs a car-theft ring in eastern New Mexico; who’s to say he’s less real than the man who sold Burden a cursed tractor-trailer rig?
If I were pressed to name a deity from the art realm who presides generally over the book—one I almost had to try to keep out—it would be Robert Smithson, though it’s hard to explain exactly why. I’d read Smithson’s writings in fits and starts for years, often getting bogged down in what Peter Schjeldahl calls his “mystagogical” dandyism, his way of writing as pseudo-anthropological stand-up.
But the older I got, the more his pieces—especially the ones that read as travelogues—began to speak to me about where I grew up, a place where the final remnants of the American frontier closed after the Comanche tribes were forced out; where Manifest Destiny seemed to have petered out and finally exposed its farcical aim, a faith in delusions called expansion and progress.
Smithson (whose untimely death in West Texas, in an airplane crash in 1973, probably also played a part in my thinking) talked about the idea of entropy in a way that felt very much like the land I knew, in a way that made the land seem more consequential, at least more interesting—a kind of conceptual test site. He wrote about the allure of “the flat surface, the banal, the empty, the cool, blank after blank,” about a place “devoid of all classical ideas of space and progress,” where “Descartes’ cosmology is brought to a standstill.” (After Coronado’s expedition across the Llano Estacado in 1541, his chronicler, the soldier Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera, described how the barren flatness provoked a psychological disorientation in Europeans so acute it practically terrified them: “Even if a man only lay down on his back he lost sight of the ground.”)
If nothing else, Smithson’s writing provided me in the lonelier hours with the pleasant pretense of my car thief as a kind of artist himself, a performance artist, a cowboy flâneur crisscrossing a Minimalist earthwork twice the size of Switzerland in search of an enlightenment he knows he might never gain because it keeps receding into the distance. As Smithson asks rightfully in “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (1969): “How could one advance on the horizon, if it was already present under the wheels?”