One can only be expected to spend so much time with the Puritans. After a while they get, well, puritanical, with their neighborly suspicion, witch trials, gruesome violence and all that time in church. Best-selling author Kathleen Kent spent almost a decade researching colonial New England and writing novels (The Heretic’s Daughter and The Wolves of Andover) based on her mother’s family history there. In her new novel, The Outcasts, Kent turns her talents southward to her native Texas, where her father’s family settled. “My dad used to say out of earshot of my mom that all the witches were on her side of the family but all the horse thieves were on his side,” Kent says.
Set in the post-Civil War vacuum of 1870 when everyone is missing something—a family member, a way to make a living, a limb—The Outcasts is a shift in setting, though not in suspense. As in Puritanical New England, neighborly suspicion still abounds. Gruesome violence remains. But there aren’t many churches on these dusty, saloon-filled streets. One lonely preacher stands by the railroad tracks holding up a sign to passing travelers that reads, “God is coming. But He is not here yet.”
As Kent explains, Texas after the Civil War was a ghost of its former self, a ravaged wasteland that created a vacuum for villains and vigilantes. “People were still physically recuperating from the war. They were broke and destitute. Slave owners had lost their world and were having to recreate themselves,” she says. “Freed slaves and immigrants were pouring into Texas and trying to recreate themselves. People write a lot about what happens in war, but what interests me is what happens after war—how a civilization reorders itself, reconstitutes itself, redefines itself out of that chaos.”
The men charged with bringing order out of chaos were the Texas Rangers, and if God was indeed absent, then maybe the Rangers were the next best thing. Kent supplies us with two noble if flawed examples in Captain George Deerling , a silent, brooding type and his partner “Doctor” Tom Goddard, a good-natured, loquacious philosopher. It’s a dynamic reminiscent of two other famous Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, whom Kent sites as a major influence, along with other titans of the canon Cormac McCarthy, Louis L’Amour and J. Frank Dobie.
Deerling and Goddard are on the hunt for a notorious murderer named McGill, and a young, fresh-faced Texas State Policeman named Nate Cannon is assigned to assist them. (In the Lonesome Dove comparison, Nate is like McMurtry’s Newt—orphaned, innocent and looking for a father figure.) As the three lawmen make their way across the unforgiving Texas terrain, another character is on the move.
When we meet Lucinda Carter, “a hard fall” has come upon her. That’s true in more ways than one: Lucinda suffers violent epileptic fits that cause her to collapse, but she has also fallen from grace, working at a whorehouse in Ft. Worth. But one morning before dawn she escapes with a stolen bag of gold coins, setting out for the Texas Gulf Coast where she and her lover have plans to get rich finding a pirate’s buried treasure.
Don’t feel too sorry for Lucinda. Like many characters populating this sweeping modern Western, she is sympathetic (her father had her committed to an asylum when she was young) but she is also pragmatic and cold-blooded, traits that Kent attributes to living in the brutal period after the Civil War.
“We read the finished product of historical endeavor in neatly delivered packages,” Kent says. “‘And they won the war’, ‘And they settled the West’. But these were extremely violent times and the men and women who were part of it had to make very difficult decisions to survive. There was a blurred line between what was good, what was bad and what was necessary.”
As Deerling, Goddard and Nate close in on McGill, Lucinda’s plan goes terribly awry, and the lives of the three lawmen and the runaway prostitute become shockingly intertwined. Like a locomotive that starts slowly and picks up steam, Kent’s novel hurls toward its climax in New Orleans, a fun house of a city where the absurd and surreal reign absolute.
Kent shines not only as a storyteller but as a landscape artist, never better than when describing the sense of a place. She writes that New Orleans has the smell of “long unattended decay of people living in too near proximity to one another; the effluvia of extravagant wastefulness.”
In The Outcasts, Kent explores the boundary between order and chaos, the central duality at the heart of the novel. “We have a very thin hold of civilization here,” one character remarks. “There are twenty ways to die from one Sunday to the next.” Like any Western writer worth her salt, Kent proves that there are endless ways to kill and be killed, but more interesting is when she leaves us in the dangerous, complicated land of the living, where characters yearn for order even as they cause (or combat) chaos. The murderer who carefully cleans his gun. The cowboy who breaks a wild horse. The swindler who masters geometry. The Ranger who loves Dickens. To Kent, it seems, we are all outcasts living in the blurred lines of life, trying to make order out of the chaos and find our way home.
Kirk Reed Forrester is a writer who lives in Houston.