Back to the beginning…The year is 1847. The Leonids
refers to a prolific meteor shower, occurring in the month of November, the most famous in recent history having occurred in 1833. This is the year the main character in the book, known only as “the kid,” was born. He is 14 now.
Elements we see here that we should keep an eye out for in the remainder of the book. Wolves. “[D]arker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.” (p. 3). Not sure if this is referring to wolves in this part of the country (Tennessee) or wolves in America or some other reference entirely. Wolves need expansive territories to roam and hunt, and they are currently extinct
in most of North America. But there will be many references to throughout the book.
Fire is an important image. Important that the book begins with the kid stoking/tending the fire. Stars are important. The skies. Will address more as they arise. Many will deal with blood, the sun, and religious/quasi-religious references. And of course violence.
We learn in the beginning of this chapter that the kid is dirty, poor, and illiterate, ironic given that his dad was a schoolmaster. His mom died during childbirth. We gather that the dad never got over it. He drinks and quotes poetry.
Not sure if the paragraph beginning “Night of your birth…” is a direct quote from the dad to the son, or if it is some narrator speaking directly to the kid. Note that punctuation is absent from the dialogue in this book. We kind of have to fend for ourselves. I will assume it is a quote of the father speaking to the kid.
At 14, the kid decides to run away. This is a great line: “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.” (p. 3). Is there a connection between his illiteracy and his taste for violence? All history is present in that visage, the face with a taste for violence. he is is father’s son. All men are born with a taste for violence. We may unlearn it or control it, but this has been true of most teenage boys I have known, including myself.
He runs away, never to see his home or father or sister again.
He goes to Memphis, sees slaves working the fields along the way. He gets to St. Louis a year later (so he’s 15 now?), and gets hired on to work on a flat boat heading for New Orleans (along the Mississippi River, I am assuming). They sell lumber. When they get to New Orleans, they break up the boat, and he takes a room above a courtyard behind a tavern. At night he comes down “like some fairybook beast” to fight with the sailors. (p. 4). He is small, but fights hard, and we gather that he wins more than he loses. There is an innocence in his eyes behind the scars. Many of the sailors are foreigners, speaking foreign languages, such that when he wins and stands over them, having beaten them, “he feels mankind itself vindicated. (p. 4). We know that he is white: “See the child. He is pale and thin.” (p. 3).
He gets his, though. One night he is shot in the back with a small pistol by a Maltese (i.e. dark and foreign) sailor, and when he turns around to fight, he is shot again. He is hurt and bleeding. No one comes to his aid.
He lies recovering in a room upstairs, and the tavernkeeper’s wife cares for him for two weeks. He has no money to pay her, though, and he sneaks out in the night and hires on with a ship headed for Texas.
A Fresh Start
On the ship, for the first time, the kid feels that he has truly left his past behind. Before, he was just a runaway from Tennessee. Now, his origins are a mystery, and we gather that he prefers it that way. He is poor, inadequately dressed, but free. He is among others like him. No one asks and no one wants to know.
We already knew he was a fighter, but his education of the violence in the world continues. He sees a man hanged in a tree for killing his father. Interesting note, his friends rush forward to pull on his legs, to hasten the death? Do they want him to die, or is it just over more quickly and thus less painful if they help it along?
He works as he goes. As pay from one farmer he takes an aged mule which, in the spring of 1849, he rides into Nacogdoches, Texas. (Note: Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey at a key point in his mission. I don’t know if it was intended, but this reference made me think of that. The kid is a kind of Savior, at least as juxtaposed against the judge, who is, at least in part, a Satan archetype. Maybe I am reading too much into this). We get the sense that a great adventure is beginning.
Meet the Judge
It has been raining for two weeks, and during this whole time a Reverend Green has been holding a tent revival, popular at the time, to a packed house. The kid slips into the tent. Inside are men like him, dirty working men, and between the wet and the uncleanness, there is “such a heady reek of the wet and bathless” that from time to time they need to go out into the rain for fresh air. But it’s raining so hard, they are soon back. The crowd consists of “others of his kind,” the only thing distinguishing the kid that he is not armed. That won’t last long.
A man next to him strikes up a conversation, talking about, of all things, the weather. But then in walks the judge.
This is our first glimpse of the judge. Enormous, hairless, nearly seven feet tall. Here’s a great detail; even though the tent is a makeshift church, he continues to smoke his cigar, and while he had removed his hat to get off the rain, he puts it back on. There is silence. All are watching the man. Though he is huge, his hands are small. We later learn his feet are small as well. His face is serene and strangely childlike. Youthful? Ageless? Certainly not innocent.
He addresses the crowd, informing them that the reverend is an imposter. Not only does he have no qualifications, he is illiterate, and also wanted by the law in several states! It’s hilarious! And it gets better.
The judge says he was caught in the act with an 11-year-old girl, and before that, a goat. The crowd wants to string him up. The reverend calls the judge the devil, but the crowd is having none (though he may be more right than we think).
A man draws his gun and fires at the reverend. The man who had been standing next to the kid grabs his knife and cuts a hole in the canvas and escapes. The kid follows. Others do the same. There is more gunfire in the tent.
The kid and his friend make it to the hotel lobby and turn back to look. The tent is in tatters on the the ground.
The kid and the teamster head towards the bar, a common destination in this adventure. The bald man (aka the judge) is already there. How did he beat them, having been at the center of all the commotion? Magic?
At the bar, the judge has two hats and two handfuls of coins. When the kid and his walleyed friend walk in, the judge raises his glass, but not to them. The kid and his friend order whiskey and go to pay, but the bartender informs him that these drinks are on the judge. They drink. More men come in, dirty and bloody. They are forming a posse to go after the reverend. They gather around the judge. The bar is so high that some men can’t even rest their elbows on it. It only goes up to the judge’s waist.
One of the men asks the judge how he came to know all those things about the reverend. The judge asks him what he is talking about. The man asks the judge when he was in Fort Smith, the place he alleged the reverend had committed his most recent misdeeds. The judge’s response is classic: “I was never in Fort Smith in my life. Doubt that he was.” (p. 8). The men look at each other. The man asks him asks again how he knows all these things about the reverend. Another classic: “I never laid eyes on the man before today. Never even heard of him.” (p. 8). There is a strange silence. And then finally someone laughs. Then they all laugh together. Someone buys the judge a drink.
The judge has ruined the reverend’s life, disrupted his sermon, almost had him killed, all for a laugh. It won’t be the last time.
It’s been raining for sixteen days, and it’s still raining. The kid has been drinking since the encounter with the judge, and he is almost completely out of money. He heads out towards the jakes (outbuilding lavatory, like an outhouse), as he would no doubt need to after all that drinking. It’s so muddy that they have thrown down wooden planks to make a sort of makeshift path that one can walk along without having to get in the mud. As he is heading towards the jakes, another man is coming back along the planks. The man is drunk, holding a bottle and swaying. “You better get out of my way,” the man says. (p. 9). The kid’s not going to do that, and sees no point in discussing it, so without further ado, he kicks the man in the jaw. “I’m goin to kill you,” says the man, and he sets about trying.
The man swings the bottle. Misses. The kid hits him, but then the man smashes the bottle over his head. The kid falls in the mud and the man with the now broken bottle is after him, trying to stick it in his eye. “Kill your ass,” now says the man, before changing to the one word chant “Kill.” The kid has his knife out now, and the man gets rid of the broken bottle and pulls his own gigantic bowieknife from behind his neck. The kid gets a good slash in, and they are circling each other, other men watching but not intervening. At least not yet.
But then someone else is coming, and it’s not clear why he’s choosing to get involved in this particular fight, but he’s coming with a vengeance, carrying a huge club. For no other apparent reason than that he has reached the kid first, he swings at him, hits him in the head and knocks him out cold. He lands face down in the mud. If someone hadn’t turned him over he would have drowned.
When he comes to, it’s light out, and it has finally stopped raining. He’s looking into the face of the man who knocked him out. The man asks him if he’s “quits,” letting him know if he wants anymore, he’s sure going to get it. The kid thinks his neck might be broken, but it’s not. The man tells him he did not mean to break his neck, he meant to kill him. That’s nice.
The mud has made a huge mess. The kid can’t find his boots, the man has lost his knife. They find everything all right. Sitting on the planks, a man comes out and makes his way along the boards toward the outhouse. He comes to the kid and the man sitting, and wisely steps off into the mud and around them. When he comes back, he does the same thing. Good choice. A buzzard flies high overhead. Maybe he thought/hoped the kid was dead.
The kid looks at the man, and he is a strange sight. His head is “strangely narrow.” (p. 11) Stranger still, he has no ears. And he has letters burned into his forehead, an H and a T, and below that an F. We talk about this later, and I think it’s like a partial attempt at writing the word “thief.” He gets up to head towards the dramhouse. The kid follows. He sees his hat and picks it up. It’s mashed flat and looks like something dead.
They enter the dram house. A man who had been sweeping sets down his broom and leaves without saying a word. Smart man. The man asks for someone named Sidney. The barman says he figures he’s asleep upstairs. The man proceeds in that direction, and the barman calls after him “Toadvine,” which we gather is his name. “He’ll shoot you,” the barman warns. “Old Sidney?” questions Toadvine. “Old Sidney,” the barman confirms. Toadvine proceeds undeterred, spreading mud everywhere.
They get to the door and Toadvine asks for a match. He tears the box up for tinder and lights the door on fire. They wait. Watch the smoke “like forms excavated from a bog.” (p. 12). Toadvine tells the kid to knock on the door, and to do it hard: “This man drinks some.” (p. 12). Ha ha! The kid does it, and the man shouts from inside “Hell fire.” He’s coming. He opens the door, and when he sees who it is, he turns to try to get away. Too late. Toadvine rides him to the ground, trying to poke out his eye. He holds his head and tells the kid to kick him in the face. The kid obliges. Then they’re running down the stairs.
The clerk is coming up the stairs, and he isn’t happy: “Toadvine you son of a bitch.” (p. 13). Toadvine kicks him in the throat. When the kid passes him, he hits him upside the head, knocking him out. Should we disturbed at how unquestioningly the kid is participating in this seemingly random act of violence? Probably.
They make it out into the street and Toadvine is waving his fists about crazily and laughing. He looks like a “clay voodoo doll made animate.” (p. 13). This could just be an observation based on the fact that he is still covered in drying mud. But as we will see, there are countless similar references to men as being made out of clay or something similar. What is the soul? What animates man? Are we all dust to dust, and nothing more?
The kid has left his mule with a Mexican family on the outskirts of town that boards animals. He shows up winded and says he needs his mule. The woman who answers the door seems uncertain, but calls to someone in the back to get the mule. The kid goes around back to get it himself. The mule seems nervous.
He starts walking the mule to the road. The woman comes out. When she sees him put his foot in the stirrup, she starts to run. He hasn’t paid. She stops and watches him go. This has probably happened before, and won’t be the last time. He doesn’t look back.
When he passes back through town, the whole hotel is on fire. A few men are standing there with empty buckets, ineffectual against the flames. I wonder if Old Sidney or the clerk made it out in time. Some men are sitting around on horseback watching the fire, and one of these is the judge. He turns to look at the kid, and smiles. The judge approves of this behavior. He turns his horse as if he’d have the horse watch the kid too. What a strange detail. Is the horse going to track the kid too? The kid touches up the mule and heads out. It won’t be the last time he sees Toadvine or the judge.
Another theme to look for as the book progresses, from a blurb on the front cover by Michael Herr, writer and book reviewer, he labels this “[a] classic American novel of regeneration through violence.” “Regeneration through violence.” Is there a theme more American than that. Look out for other examples as the analysis progresses.
scullery- a small kitchen or room at the back of a house used for washing dishes and other dirty household work.
incubate- to maintain (as an embryo or a chemically active system) under conditions favorable for hatching, development, or reaction
visage- a person’s face, with reference to the form or proportions of the features
husbandman- a person who cultivates the land; a farmer
flatboat- a boat with a flat bottom and square ends used for transportation of bulky freight especially in shallow waters
1 : a native or inhabitant of Malta
2 : the Semitic language of the Maltese people
3 : any of a breed of toy dogs with a long silky white coat, a black nose, and very dark eye
Malta- group of islands in the Mediterranean S of Sicily
boatswain- an officer on a ship whose job is to take care of the main body of the ship and all the ship’s equipment
egret- a heron with mainly white plumage, having long plumes in the breeding season.
parricide- one that murders his or her father, mother, or a close relative
hamlet- a small settlement, generally one smaller than a village.
lighter- a large usually flat-bottomed barge used especially in unloading or loading ships
diptheria- an acute, highly contagious bacterial disease causing inflammation of the mucous membranes, formation of a false membrane in the throat that hinders breathing and swallowing, and potentially fatal heart and nerve damage by a bacterial toxin in the blood. It is now rare in developed countries because of immunization.
piety-1 : the quality or state of being pious: as a : fidelity to natural obligations (as to parents) b : dutifulness in religion : devoutness
2 : an act inspired by piety
3 : a conventional belief or standard : orthodoxy
teamster- a driver of a team of animals.
a mortal Gorgon who is slain when decapitated by Perseus
2 plural me·du·sae play \-ˌsē, -ˌzē, -ˌsī, -ˌzī\ also medusas [New Latin, from Latin] : jellyfish 1a
me·du·san play \-sən, -zən\ adjective or noun
guyropes- a rope or line fixed to the ground to secure a tent or other structure.
effigies- an image or representation especially of a person; especially : a crude figure representing a hated person
batboard- style of building where broader planks are spaced with space in between, and then narrower boards are placed over the gaps
shellalegh- variation of “shillelagh,” a cudgel or heavy club
coiffure- a person’s hairstyle, typically an elaborate one
dramhouse- drink house; place for drinking
wainscotted- lined (a room or wall) with wooden paneling.
hackamore- a bridle without a bit, operating by exerting pressure on the horse’s nose.