By Susan Pagani
A famous author once said that the only virtue fictional characters need to possess is vitality: If they come to life in our imaginations, they pass the test. In Rick Riordan's novels, the character of Tres Navarre has so much vitality I keep expecting to run into him on the street - even more so because his most recent investigation takes place in my neighborhood.
Southtown is Riordan's fifth novel about Navarre, a San Antonio-based private investigator with an unwholesome curiosity, a wicked sense of humor, and a slightly cowboy approach life. After 1,600 pages of prose, one wonders if the character is walking around in Riordan's world too. Is he real enough to, say, meet me at Liberty Bar for an interview? When I queried the local author, he was quick to remind me that the guy exists only on paper. That said, he thought Navarre might respond to an e-mail.
How does that work? About like you might expect, considering that no matter how omniscient the author, he is still constricted by the whim of his character. Jackson "Tres" Navarre, who grew up in San Antonio's Alamo Heights, might be the king of droll repartee, but how personal would he get with a reporter?
SP: How long has your family been in Texas?
TN: Let's see, today is Thursday ... Oh, you mean seriously? Since the 1880s. The Navarres were French Catholics who came to Texas by way of Louisiana. My grandfather had a homestead near Sabinal. That's still where the family ranch is.
This is the same grandfather for whom both he and his father were named - hence the "Tres." There's a lot of pressure associated with inheriting one person's name, let alone two. I get the feeling that's why the character goes by Tres: to avoid identity crisis as much as confusion.
SP: What do you have in common with the men you are named after - any Navarre legacies? What about your mother's family?
TN: My grandfather was as hard as sheet iron, I swear. He lived on the ranch his whole life, used to dig his own fence post holes even when he was in his 70s. If I have anything in common with him, I guess it would be stubbornness.
My father was Bexar County Sheriff back in the '70s. I guess I inherited my interest in detective work from him - and, of course, the family proclivity for alcohol and a general tendency toward self-destruction. Isn't DNA wonderful?
As for my mother, she's the original Texas Bohemian artist. She's in Guatemala right now with her boyfriend, the chakra crystal salesman. She tells me the Mayan art is inspiring her to rediscover her sense of color. If anybody can translate that for me, please give me a call.
Maybe his mother had more influence than he lets on; after high school, Navarre ran off to Berkeley, California. There he completed a five-year doctorate in English Literature in three years, along the way mastering Middle English, classical Spanish and Latin, and "enough Anglo-Norman to get through the jokes in the fabliaux." That's pretty impressive, even for a fictional guy, but it's also a lot of education just to read some naughty verses.
SP: What compelled you to get a PhD - and why didn't it compel you to pursue an academic career?
TN: I have a strong masochistic streak. Try reading Middle English some time; you'll see what I mean. My favorite author of all time is Geoffrey Chaucer. The guy is hilarious and extremely R-rated. They say I cuss a lot?
I'd like to tell you I left academia because I was making some kind of personal statement. The truth was, I couldn't keep a job.
Navarre is funny, it's true, but underlying that non-stop sarcastic wit is complexity: a battle between complete chaos and rigorous discipline. To keep the former from overwhelming the latter, Navarre begins each day by practicing Tai Chi Chuan forms. Since he's as likely to pick a fight as he is to quote Canterbury Tales, it's good he has some self-defense behind him - especially since he eschews guns.
TN: About guns - the thing is, if you carry one, you're more liable to use it. But I have gotten a little more comfortable with them over the last few years. I've had to. People keep pointing them at me.
SP: What tools of the trade do you keep in the glove box of your truck?
TN: A small digital camera. A lock-pick set. A ball of string (No, it's not for the cat). Several business cards, some of them fictional. A blackjack. Spare change for meters. And, of course, a tin of breath mints for those up-close-and-personal encounters.
SP: Speaking of personal encounters ... as far as the ladies are concerned, you're kind of a devil in blue jeans. And you certainly seem to be surrounded by strong, intelligent, beautiful women - do you ever think about settling down?
TN: You neglect to mention that most of those strong, intelligent, beautiful women are trying to kill me. But seriously, I am settling down. At least, by my standards. Maia Lee, my long-time girlfriend, moved to Austin from San Francisco last year, and there's really nobody else for me. Besides, if I said anything different, she would put me in a painful joint-lock.
Southtown focuses on the other cool woman in his life: Erainya Manos, his boss and mentor. Will "the Ghost" Stirman has orchestrated his escape from Floresville State Pen with one objective: vengeance. It was Manos' long dead husband and her archrival, Sam Barrera, who sent Stirman up for human trafficking and accessory to murder, so why is the killer so interested in Erainya and her son? Does next of kin count in murderous revenge? Navarre thinks she has something "the Ghost" wants. Whatever it is, he'll have to figure it out himself because his boss isn't talking and Barrera is slowly disappearing into an Alzheimer's fog.
SP: Which of the published investigations was most personally satisfying for you?
TN: The one where I get showered with fame and riches. I'm still waiting for that one.
SP: Any regrets about your career choice?
TN: With private eye work? Are you kidding? I have regrets every day.
SP: Any advice for aspiring private investigators?
TN: Come to your senses. It's not too late.
SP: One last question: How did your cat get the name Robert Johnson?
TN: I love the blues. Robert Johnson - demigod of the blues - did his best recordings at the Bluebonnet Hotel in San Antonio. •
By Susan Pagani