Luke's Book

First Chapter

(from Get Thee to a Nunnery by David R. Slavitt)

The question before us -- and, let's not kid ourselves, it is always before us -- is, what do we mean by civilization? The grand buildings of Europe, the palaces, churches, and universities full of paintings, sculptures, and books, ringing with the echoes of great music and witty talk . . . Is that it? Is that even real? Or, more to the point, does it oblige the rest of us to aspire, and of course to fail, as we try to imitate those princes whose great-grandfathers were brigands, pirates, thugs, and butchers, just like ours but more successful because they were better at it?

Simplify, simplify. What you are left with is that clearer statement of the problem the cowboy or prospector sees as he comes riding or maybe crawling into town. What is he looking for after his strenuous months in the wilderness? A bath, a drink, a decent meal cooked on an actual stove, some nookie maybe, and then, at the end of his brief binge, some fresh supplies and new equipment so that he can go out to seek, once again, his fortune from the flesh of dumb beasts or the hidden veins of metal God or the devil hid in those hillsides, barren and absurdly remote.

Civilization, for him, is the huddle of shacks near a bend in the river: a barber shop, a saloon, a general store, and a whore house. The town, an outpost of what we cannot deny is the zero grade of society and, indeed, of civilized living. Some of these towns are better than others, of course. In a few of them the liquor is even drinkable, the food edible; the prices are not outrageous and the odds are a little longer against getting robbed (with a deck of cards or a naked six-shooter) or coming down with the clap. That would be a good town, but there aren't a lot of those. Most are bad, and some are worse.

And the worst? Wurst, which is why they called it that, at least at first. The Wurst town you ever did see. After a while, when that joke wore thin, the name changed or, say if you prefer, evolved to Hotdog, which was the same old Wurst with a little relish and mustard. And I suppose Vienna is what they'll claim to be one day -- or, maybe, Frankfurt -- out there in the New Mexico scrub that looks nothing whatever like the Vienna woods.

How do you think people decide to settle in a place like Hotdog anyway, this huddle of weatherworn buildings with a joke name and a bad reputation? These are not successful, reputable citizens from back East who have come out for the pretty sunsets and the fresh air. These are failures and fugitives, the world's washouts who have, like dirty water, sunk with unseemly gurgles of complaint to find at last their proper level. Despised and disenchanted, they come out here mostly to get away from something. Sometimes they come in the hope of finding something. Some of them have vague notions of striking it rich, but this is a pro forma dream in which not even the devoutly stupid really believe. It is a logical possibility perhaps, but in their sober moments they know it's not going to happen, and that if it does, they'll get robbed or cheated, and either killed outright or, worse, left to dispose of themselves, with guilt, shame, disgust, and despair in whatever combination these have oozed up from the spirit's wound.

They also come to such places just to die, having been told that a bullet is a faster and cleaner death than what consumption is likely to offer. They come to the crest of the pass, look down at this child's toy of a town, this pathetic collection of unlovely structures, and recognize it as their fated place. Its ugliness is what speaks to them, its unadorned meanness familiar, right, and true. A man can all but hear his own name in the wind's moan and take it as the raspy voice of the avenging angel who has been following him as long as he can remember, hounding him even to this dismal hidey-hole at the end of the world.

Him? Me, I might better say. I'm Lucas Wright. Or was once. Out here it's just Luke. The surname is a cruel homonym, a bad joke, I haven't bothered with for a long time. I can still remember clearly how, as I descended from the pass to the town below and approached the ramshackle rectangles of the buildings on its single street, I felt the special satisfaction that comes of fitting an odd-shaped puzzle piece into its proper place. Here in this minimalist assertion of mankind's claim to be a social species, I figured I had at last found a place in which I was unlikely to be disillusioned or disappointed. The pretensions by which most men think their lives are demonstrations of ethics, esthetics, morality, and religion were too delicate to flourish here. In the shadows of board rooms and boudoirs, hypocrisy can all too easily beguile the gullible, but in the glare of this unrelieved sunlight, even a fool like me would be unable to mistake the harsh truths of the human condition.

Say that your wife has run off with another man, taking your daughter with her, and say too that your wife's lover's wealth and power are such that you have no possible recourse and, indeed, are forced to agree with his lawyer, whose manicure is too perfect and who smells too strongly of rosewater, that by any reasonable standard your daughter is better off with the advantages money can buy. What choice is there but to give up the foolish notions you once had of love, trust, and truth, and accede to the suggestion that you just disappear? Clear out of town? It isn't that you'd be doing your wife a favor, or even yourself, but you'd be doing what's best for your little girl.

Go west. That's what the west is for, isn't it? Those who don't fit anymore, who are an inconvenience to others or to themselves, can go there, vanish the way the sun does when it dips down below the horizon. And not bother anyone with meaningless reproaches and useless recriminations -- not to speak of the empty, ludicrous threats -- which are anyway likely to get you hurt or killed if they continue . . . ("Do I make myself quite clear, Mr. Wright?")

Not that I'm admitting anything exactly like that ever happened to me. But one way or another, most of us out here in Hotdog have come because we had to and stayed because it suits us. We may not delight in it, but it fits -- like a beat-up old hat that sits the right way on the head, so that after a while it's hard to say where the face ends and the hat's droopy, weather-stained brim begins.

What gave that dreary collection of shacks and sheds its special quality of strenuous despair was the vista of sky overhead, a rich and altogether pointless display of irrelevant splendor that would have been impressive and intimidating above any ordinary human settlement. Here that huge expanse of pale blue with its random displays of towering clouds turned the town into a joke, a contemptible blemish on the bare and all but overwhelming landscape.

As I approached it that first time, I wondered whether it wasn't a ghost town. But no, there was laundry flapping on a clothesline out behind one of the buildings. And there were delicate wisps of smoke here and there. But nobody was moving. They were all inside . . . by coincidence? Or was there a plague? Or were they all fugitives, looking to see if their visitor might be some kind of lawman?

In a town like this, any stranger is a threat. But this is always true, isn't it? That was the whole point of the old Greek notion of hospitality -- which is crazy. You may or may not like your neighbors, and may not trust them very far, but you have learned what they're likely to do. And with a stake in the place, they have as much to lose as you do. But any wandering lunatic or desperado can come in from the desert to shoot the town up for reasons that have nothing to do with you, or for no reason at all. Looking out from behind their walls and sighting down the barrels of their rifles, the populace of Hotdog watched as I came toward them, eyeing me with various mixtures of anticipation, greed, and apprehension. I was apprehensive too, I guess, because I had been on the trail a long time and was tired, hoping at least to rest up here for a day or two.

One way of judging a town is by its sheriff. If they've got themselves a drunk, or maybe some bad-ass they've thought to tame down by giving him a badge and a key to the jail house he's already familiar with, then you've got yourself a rough town. After a while, places like that either settle down to something more or less recognizable and hold an election, with a sheriff, a mayor, and a judge to share the power and keep tabs on one another, or else the town just disintegrates, abandoning the pretense of that tin star, which nobody actually needs in order to operate a revolver.

Usually, this test works well enough, but with the Duke it was still an open question. He hadn't yet decided the answer, himself. Duke wasn't necessarily his name, although it could have been Something Duke, or even Duke Something. Personal questions weren't safe to ask in Hotdog. But people called him the Duke, and he was the proprietor of the Black Garter, which was the town's bar, restaurant, hotel, and casino. I assume he also had some interest in Marianne's place down the street, which was the whore house. His managerial duties included maintaining some degree of order and decorum, if only to protect his liquor bottles, his furniture, and his girls from random mayhem. It wasn't unusual for that kind of monitoring to extend beyond the threshold of the premises, to include the rest of the street, which, in this case, meant the whole town. And that was what had happened.

Where the Duke came from and what kind of life he'd had before he hit bottom and arrived at Hotdog, I have no idea. But Claude, one of the layabouts who hung around the Black Garter, dealing a little faro sometimes or just being friendly so that he could cadge drinks and help himself to an occasional pickled egg from the bar, cautioned me early on to watch myself with the Duke. Such a warning was probably gratuitous, as one generally watches oneself with large, mean-looking guys who carry six-guns. But what he had in mind wasn't the Duke's size or meanness or even his ability with a gun, but something far more unpredictable and therefore ominous. "You take care around the Duke," Claude told me in a lazy accent that might have been from the upper south. "He's an intellectual."

And then, in the way of punctuation, he produced a kind of abrupt horse laugh, but it was difficult to say who the butt of his joke was supposed to be -- the Duke, me, or Claude himself.

I must have shown my puzzlement. For all I know, that flicker of uncertainty was just what he'd been working toward.

"Buy a drink, stranger?" he asked.

"Sure, why not."

"Hey, Angel! A couple of whiskeys for me and my friend here," he said.

Angel -- pronounced in the Spanish way, as On Hell -- was the bartender. He was a squat, swarthy fellow with black, beetling eyebrows that formed an uninterrupted line across his forehead, and a livid scar running down his right cheek. He nodded, produced a grudging rictus that I took to be a parody of a smile, and poured us a couple of shots.

He did this slowly and without speaking, and I thought maybe he was an intellectual, too.

* * *

Which is not, necessarily, a smart person. Or no smarter than anyone else. An intellectual is somebody who believes in smartness, who thinks it helps, who assumes -- for no reason he can ever give -- that if you understand a problem well enough, you're halfway to solving it. This is not necessarily true, for if your problem is, by its nature, insoluble, one of the things you're likely to discover about it, after it has been correctly formulated, is that there's no way out. No hope. No prospect of release or even relief. Nothing but the wisdom of dumb beasts to accept that this is how it is.

An intellectual also has a playful side, whether he admits this or not. He is looking to fix things that aren't broken, improve things that can't be improved, and along the way he is always toying with this idea or that. Not only technology and social policy, but morality and religion are entertainments to these people or, even worse, opportunities for self-expression. You and I look around and see a row of buildings, or an expanse of wilderness, and the choice is generally whether to admire it or deplore it, whether to stay for a while or move on. These people, these intellectuals, want to impose their signatures on it.

Even in Hotdog! Or, one might say, especially in Hotdog, which was just that kind of simple community that invites experimentation. After all, what was at risk? This mean-looking collection of shacks might not have been impressive to any sensible man or woman, but to an intellectual it was a micro-environment in which to explore the implications of Rousseau's notions of Social Contract, Aristotle's theories of politics and ethics, or Plato's ideas about the Republic and the philosopher king. It is only on top of the most remote mountains, away from the haze and the blur of cities, that astronomers can see the faintest stars. And here, in Hotdog, in the furthest and most desolate corner of the New Mexico Territory, what we had was, in the poet's phrase, darkness visible.

You'd think that such a place would be hard to fuck up. Even if there was a nut who seemed to own the town -- none of the rest of the citizens found this idea strange in any way -- and whose conversational style was, to say the very least, unpredictable.

As a stranger, I got invited to hang around for a spell, if only for the entertainment value novelty promises. The Duke came into town late that afternoon, met me, sized me up, and invited me to dine with him.

I accepted, of course -- it would have been rude and perhaps dangerous to refuse. I had the place of honor to the right of the Duke. His boys -- associates, cronies, hirelings, enforcers -- arranged themselves along the benches that ran down both sides of the trestle table. Cookie brought out a cauldron full of some kind of soup and, in what was evidently a departure from his customary practice, the Duke invited one of his henchmen to say Grace. "Come on, Gaspard. Let's not let our guest think he's fallen among barbarians."

Gaspard, a huge, barrel-chested fellow who was clearly not an intellectual, looked uncomfortable. He grinned like the awkward child he must once have been. "Grace," he said at last, afraid not to play in one of the Duke's games.

"No, no. A real Grace," the Duke said, pretending to be hurt.

Gaspard looked stricken. The joke was apparently going to be on him. He did his best nevertheless: "We thank Thee, O Lord, for this food. Grant us . . . peace on earth."

"That," said the Duke, "was Grace for a barn. For a horse about to stick his nose in his feedbag."

Gaspard stared down at his plate.

Then the Duke laughed heartily, letting him and the rest of us off the hook. "But that's okay, because all horses go to heaven, don't you know!"

"Why is that?" I asked. It had certainly seemed like an invitation for a straight line, and I was the guest, after all.

"In the summer, the sled rests. In the winter, the cart rests. But the horse never rests," the Duke said. "That's why horses go to heaven."

Interesting, perhaps, but it was less compelling than the soup, which turned out to be ambrosial -- a delicate broth with a mirepoix of carrots and onions, and a subtle combination of herbs and spices, the kind of food that only incidentally feeds the belly as it delights the palate and nourishes the spirit.

"Wonderful soup," I said.

"Ain't it!" the Duke agreed, mock-modest.

"Where does the cook come from?" I asked.

This question met with a deserved ripple of laughter. "Back east, where everything and everyone comes from," the Duke said. The cook was a Greek who, as I was informed, answered to any Greek name -- Socrates, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Alcibiades, Homer . . . Whatever. He had come out to the New Mexico Territory as a kind of experiment, putting the economists' notions of supply and demand to the test. In Philadelphia, where there were lots of chefs, sous-chefs, and marmitons, he was a nobody. Out here, however, where nobody within a thousand miles knew as much as he did about the preparation of food, the importance and the rarity of his skills combined to transform him into an important personage, a honcho, an aristocrat.

"Were the economists right?" I asked.

The Duke gave me a scornful glance to let me know I'd committed another bêtise. There was the soup in front of me, this astonishing marmite with all the evidence my senses or intellect could provide. What made Hotdog livable, what redeemed it as if with a shining ray of grace that streaked down into the murk, was Aeschylus' genius. His pride in his work and the devoted appreciation of his otherwise rude and uncultivated clientele made him a pillar of the community. He didn't just read and execute traditional recipes, although he could do that quite efficiently when he wanted to celebrate a birthday or the anniversary of some crucial event in his life or that of the town. Where he really shone was in his experiments with the local vegetation. He incorporated odd varieties of plants -- peppers, in particular -- into his general practice, enriching and extending traditional cuisines. He traveled out to the Indian tribes, the nomads who moved with the game and the pueblo dwellers as well, consulting with their medicine men and the old women of the villages, and he got them to share their secrets.

Who knows whether he was trying to improve the world or just amusing himself? One might have accused him too of being an intellectual, except that he was modest and kept his mouth shut.

It was the taste of that soup that made me decide, at least for a while, to hang around.

Hotdog, I began to suspect, might be an interesting place.

* * *

A few days, or a few weeks . . . Time is flexible, particularly if one has nothing to look forward to with eagerness or dread. I found a bare but comfortable enough bunk at Julie's place, which Claude had recommended. It was a boarding house that Julie insisted was not a brothel. It might have been something in how I looked, or it might have been her general rule to make this distinction clear.

She wasn't what you'd call a pretty woman, or even attractive in the usual sense, but she was somehow very sexy. Like one of those primitive figurines, she seemed to have been squooshed down by the sculptor's palm, foreshortened, so that what you got was all tits and ass with hardly any waist between them. She was in her late thirties, maybe, and she wore a severe brown dress that buttoned way up to the neck, which was another way of letting the world know that she was no madame or hooker but only an innkeeper, and that all she was offering was that bed and breakfast the sign in the window promised. Not that she had anything against whores and whoring, except that it was a noisy occupation and its exercise could sometimes get rough.

"I'm here for the long haul," she told me as she showed me the room I could have. It was simple, even bare, but clean. And the bed was tolerable. She stood in the open doorway with her hands folded across that capacious shelf of bosom and explained to me in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, "You want your pipes cleaned, there's Marianne's place down the street. In my house, though, you're a good boy or you're out on your ass, you got that?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said, smartly.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm no prude. No prude could live in this place five minutes. But we all do what we believe in . . . And I've got this notion that we're going to be a town someday, a real town . . . What you see out there today isn't real. This is just a phase, a stage. It's a kid's dream where naughty boys can come and play their games. But it won't last. It can't. Or that's how I'm betting. And if I'm right, I'm going to be one of the richest women in New Mexico . . . "

"And if you're wrong?" I asked.

She shrugged. "We don't get to choose, do we? It's a matter not so much of conviction as taste. Inclination. Your life is what you do with it, what you make of it, which is the only way you ever find out who you are."

"That certainly is true," I agreed. "How much is the room?"

She explained that she had two different prices, one for tourists and trouble-makers, another for residents. Residents, it turned out, were those who had jobs in Hotdog. Did I have a job? Or, more to the point, did I want one? Doing chores, cutting firewood, sweeping up, helping with the laundry when the Indian woman didn't show up?

"Sure, why not?" I said. It was the kind of welcome a man isn't likely to get very often and I was grateful for it. "I've got nothing else in particular in my appointment book."

"It'll fill up, I have no doubt," she promised.

I took the room as a resident, and on a week-to-week deal. She nodded gravely, then said, "Welcome to Hotdog," and pumped my hand a couple of times, making it official.

It's more than I'd had in a lot of places, more than a man is likely to get, I'll tell you, in a lot of towns that think of themselves as civilized.