Reviews: A Passion in the Desert
Excerpts From Reviews:
A Passion in the Desert
By the time readers finish A Passion in the Desert, they will know its central character, Fred Twomey, more intimately than they know the people around them, quite possibly even themselves. That’s one of the powers of great fiction, and Thomas E. Kennedy possesses a special ability to explore the landscape of a man’s inner world, exposing emotions and secrets he can barely admit to himself. Although Twomey’s life is unique, caught up in its own particular drama, he is clearly one of us, and in discovering him, we discover ourselves.
—Walter Cummins, in The Literary Review
Spellbinding, at times terrifying … In prose that is heartbreakingly beautiful, Kennedy has written a story of the aftermath of an unforgettable passion, the cost of letting go, and then letting go.
—Duff Brenna, author of The Book of Mamie, The Willow Man, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body, and The Holy Book of the Beard
Kennedy’s work had somehow eluded my vision until now, a failure I intend to remedy in the near future. Written in a brilliant style, A Passion in the Desert can be deceptive. It begins as a fairly straightforward novel … [but] … readers have been introduced to a very troubled mind which only exposes itself slowly as the book progresses … here’s where the master stylist comes in …. The more you read … the more you want to read.
—Rochelle Ratner, in American Book Review
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A Passion in the Desert
»» A review by Duff Brenna, author of The Book of Mamie, The Willow Man, Too Cool, The Altar of the Body, and The Holy Book of the Beard
Thomas E. Kennedy’s 8th novel begins with Professor Fred Twomey waking in darkness aboard a stalled train somewhere in Vermont. He has no idea what lies ahead for him, but lying there in the night he is suddenly gripped with cold fear. He remembers his wife, Jenny, and the doll she showed him the day he was leaving to catch the train to attend a writer’s conference.The doll held a steak knife in its hand. “Who’s the joker?” Jenny asked. No one knows who the joker is and thereby hangs a spine-tingling tale that graduates by degrees to something that is disturbingly creepy and at times terrifying. “ … any intruder could arm himself to the teeth. Filet you in your sleep,” Twomey thinks. He imagines someone is in the sleeping car with him. Maybe this someone is about to jump him? “Who’s there?” Twomey says.
“Who’s there?” is one of the themes Kennedy interlaces throughout the novel. Who is Twomey? Who is Jenny? Who are their sons Jimbo and Larry? Who put that steak knife in the doll’s hand? Who flattened the tires of Twomey’s bike? Who is the figure in the snow wearing a red robe and carrying a sword? Who wrote CUZ YOU A PRICK on Twomey’s windshield? Who keeps telling Twomey YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE! Twomey first sees the statement written on a mailbox, and then mysteriously the same sentence appears in his spiral pad. And beneath it is another: THE FUTURE DOESN’T DESERVE YOU. AND YOU DON’T DESERVE A FUTURE. Twomey chants the lines to himself as if he believes them. Who’s there?
Is Twomey the man who means it when he says, “If you must sin, sin boldly”? Or is he the idealist who refuses a woman’s invitation because he sees the gold ring on his finger and thinks of how much he loves his wife? Is he the man who stopped pre-cunnilingus because he felt a callus on his seducer’s foot, “sharkskin”? Well, of course, he’s all of the above. And more. Kennedy’s writing is spellbinding. Step by step, plot and character slowly unfolding as we go deeper and deeper into a man’s tormented psyche, until by the end we know Twomey possibly as well as we know ourselves. Maybe better.
Twomey teaches literature. He’s a writer and something of a boozer, a functioning alcoholic. We learn that in his youth he had a lover named Katey. They lived out west in the desert. It was the sixties, a love-em and leave-em laissez-faire time in Twomey’s life. When the affair with Katey ended, she was pregnant. Twomey was not convinced the child was his. One morning he got out of bed and snuck out of the house, abandoning Katey to her fate. As time went by he got educated, found a tenure track position, got married, had a family. He believes the future will be more of the same, until a ghost from his past catches up with him and says: YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE!
But does Twomey know what he’s done? The phantom scribbler says he does, but at first Twomey seems only baffled. Later, giving in to paranoia, he wonders if someone fed Jenny a lie about what almost happened with that shark-footed woman who took him to her room at the hotel. He wonders if Jenny believes he’s betrayed her.
The graceful way Kennedy continually reveals more and more of Twomey’s character is one of the great triumphs of A Passion in the Desert. When he is with his wife, the style is always translucent:
With a lazy desire he looks forward to fulfilling later, he watches her move. It is a simple afternoon, he thinks. Simple pleasures. A day to feel love. A harbor in the vast and varied oceans of their eighteen years together.
When Twomey is fighting his demons, the style turns Joycean: Fever or forgotten wings, and I made my own way deciphering that fire. Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust.
Kennedy gives us a very flawed man, who is also a very good man, and a man who can’t forgive himself for the mistakes he’s made, the pain he’s caused. Ultimately, no one can condemn Twomey more than he condemns himself as he echoes the words he found in his notebook: “You don’t deserve a future and the future doesn’t deserve you.” And then tellingly, “Those hopeful Kerouac years, and how they spiraled out in the sixties.The desert. Katey.” “A time when everything was permitted.” Twomey is a man carrying a lot of baggage. Enough to sink him if he doesn’t get his life under control.
Sprinkled throughout the book are “Shadow King” chapters. The Shadow King is Alan Angel, Twomey’s perverted tormentor, an acid figure who sees himself as the righter of wrongs. When he says he wants to reverse the wave of evil, he means Twomey. Alan Angel is the result of Twomey’s past transgression, embodying the motif set at the center of his story: the sins of the past are always with you. Kennedy foreshadows this conviction early in the book when a man named Burns talks about infidelity: “What are we going to regret more when we’re old? The things we do or the things we don’t do?” This question is followed by Twomey’s feeble protest — Matthew Arnold’s line from “Dover Beach”: “Love let us be true to one another.” Which sets the stage for a seismic shift nearly halfway through the book when we realize the irony of Twomey’s borrowed sentiment. He wasn’t true to his love, and now he realizes, with deep regret, that he is one of the unforgiven, one of those who will always be haunted by his past.
By then he is half crazy with worry. He loves his wife. He wants to keep her, but perhaps she no longer trusts him. Does she still love him? What did Twomey do to Jenny? Nothing directly. He almost cheated on her, but didn’t. In fact his real sin has nothing to do with Jenny, unless she would insist on making his past a thing of the present. What if she decided that even if he didn’t sleep with his colleague at the conference, his abandonment of pregnant Katey defines him? Would it be a flaw so terrible that she could no longer love him? Twomey thinks about confessing, but doesn’t. Still, maybe she’ll find out. Maybe he’ll be exposed for the horrible way he acted. He knows his beloved wife would leave him if she knew.
Twomey travels a long way into the inferno before he realizes that he must deal with the avenging angel’s murderous intentions. Hovering on the edge of a mental breakdown, Twomey moves toward a showdown. The novel builds masterfully to a confrontation that is at once enlightening, terrifying, and a brilliant example of what it means when we say that an author has managed to pull all of his themes together into a climax that is at once inevitable, profound, and spiritually true to the characters he created. In prose that is heartbreakingly beautiful, Kennedy has written a story of the aftermath of an unforgettable passion, the cost of letting go, and then letting go.