Part one of this story may be found here
Twenty-one days later—starting a new letter to bring you up to date. First of all, I should tell you I’m making progress on the novel—don’t give up
the ship. I hope to have a draft to show you by maybe the end of the month.
I waffled around in Kingston for a week after making my Big Discovery, agonizing about whether or not to return to Antioch. Partly I worried about becoming some sort of tourist amidst other people’s misery, to quote the Situationists—a spy or voyeur on the “unfit.” But then I realized that I don’t really consider the villagers to be miserable freaks. The truth is, I envy them. I like the idea of a hidden in-grown sect of weird heretics, and their “tri-racial” heritage simply makes them, if anything, seem better “Americans” than the Pure and Fit.
Are they hillbillies? rednecks? mutants? These were not the words that crossed my mind as I contemplated my sojourn amongst them. I thought of
Montaigne and Rousseau and their idea that “savages” are more noble than the heroes of “Civilization” — and it seemed to fit the people I’d met. I hadn’t actually seen any obvious mental or physical defectives in the village, and anyway, what’s so bad about incest? “If all men are brothers, would you let one of them marry your sister?” as Theodore Sturgeon put it. “Who am I to judge?” as the Pope says.
And compared to my old life in Kingston (and Manhattan!) I had to admit that the Nicolaitan Path seemed far more natural and attractive. I was
sick to the point of despair of the Simulacra World of the XXIst century with its Information Ontology and Commodity Fetishism and 5th rate media trance—its schizo split between the One Percent Masters of the Universe and the 99% brainless dupes and wage-slaves—the fundamentalist assholes of all stripes, and the liberal jerks who smugly believe in their own superiority (because they own more “eco-friendly” consumer goods); I was sick of the Rule of Finance Capital and Spectacular Delusion, the addiction to suppressed rage and distraction, the techno-idolatry, the decay of beauty and the End of the World as an endless re-run of bad television, distant war and on-line shopping. I missed the idea of the Social, and I had witnessed it still alive in Antioch. I was tired of junk food and tired of green locavore gourmet expensive dreck; I missed Mrs Van Donk’s cooking. I decided to go back.
Mr Cutter, for one, was glad to see me. “Usually between Memorial Day and Hunting Season I don’t get a single rental. If you like, I could let you have
two cabins for the price of one—you could sleep in one and do your writin’ in the other!” He tells me he closes for the winter after Hunting Season and before Xmas. I guess I’ll have to decide what to do with my life before then. Who knows, maybe I’ll buy a doublewide—if you give me a decent advance on royalties, old chap!
I went back to Church and chatted a bit with Rev. Ryan, but I haven’t told him about my discovery. I’m not sure I should reveal my knowledge to anyone, much less such a compulsive talker. I do like him, though. He’s introduced me to a few of his parishioners and invited me to give a lecture to the Ladies’ Auxiliary! Since I eat at the Store at least once a day, however, I see more of the Van Donks than anyone else. My relations with them are on a new footing, as I will now explain.
One day Mrs Van D served Brunswick stew for supper — made (as it should be) with squirrel and ’possum, as well as vegetables from her own garden. It turned out that the game had been provided by none other than young Ned. When I raved about the stew and praised the boy to the skies for his contribution, he finally warmed up to me and we had a nice talk. He’s the sort of kid who doesn’t know—or care—whether Washington DC is the nation’s capital or whatever—but can talk for hours about the forest. On the subject of how to trap racoons—muskrats—when to fish for trout or catfish or crappie—how to track deer—habits of the wild turkey—duck calls—mushrooms—woodscraft of all sorts—he’s a veritable native guide. A Junior Woodchuck.
Now, as you know, the only Manly Thing I’ve ever done in my life as a slacker intellectual is to hunt and fish. I was brought up (back in the old days in
the sticks) with two uncles who loved sport, and when I was a kid I liked nothing better than sharing their expeditions. I owned a rifle when I was twelve.
When I grew up and went Away, I experienced a revulsion for all that life, which seemed so primitive and unsophisticated—and I even went so far as to become a vegetarian. I scorned the Hunter as an atavistic reactionary, and felt myself to be morally superior.
Then I read Michael Pollan. I confess it. I became one of the new gourmets of Heritage Meat. But I felt guilty. I came to think I should kill what I eat. I
bought a license and a gun and went back to the woods—and I loved it. Giving attention to the living world is ten times better than yoga. The Indians had it right: the animals (and plants) are “all our relations.” Eating them is a way of showing our love. After all, some day, as the Rig Veda says, we too will be food. Sacrifice and gift constitute the true pulse of the real. This is not—I think—Hemingway macho delusion (ugh!) — it’s a form of art. And could it be an accident that “venery” means both hunting and erotic experience? The dictionary says they come from different roots—but puns go deeper than etymologies.
I didn’t say any of this to Ned, naturally, but when I asked him to show me good places for fly fishing, he was enthusiastic. When I suggested that, come hunting season, we might venture out together, he said, “Aw, we don’t pay too much attention to licenses and such around here, Mister. Let’s go tomorrow!”
I asked him to call me “G,” as all my friends do, and not “Mister.” And he agreed.
Next day I arose before dawn, drove to the Store and picked up Ned, who’d been supplied with a paper bag of sandwiches and a thermos of coffee by his Mom. He had a .22 and an old boyscout knife. I had my shotgun and game-bag, etc. We drove a few miles to the end of a gravel road (I think we were over the border in Sullivan County), parked, and hiked into the woods. In an hour or so we came to the edge of a nice wetland (or “swamp” as they used to be called), and settled down to wait.
I won’t go into a big Faulknerian song and dance here. Suffice it to say that we had left the pines and come into deciduous forest, and the leaves had begun to change. The day came up a bit gray, but this only brought out the colors in a more painterly way. The woods were bustling with life. Around eleven, Ned “barked” a squirrel. We ate our sandwiches. And around three in the afternoon I shot a 6-point buck.
I tried to act modest, but this kill in fact represented the acme of my hunting career to date, and I was quite chuffed. Ned was gleeful. I told him to build a fire. I hung the deer from a branch and began to “break” it—I’ll spare you the details. I cut out the liver and we stuck bits of it on sticks and ate them, like real Neanderthals. Then we hauled the carcass back to the car and tied it on the roof.
Lo the mighty hunters! Mrs Van D and young Katie acted quite paleolithic about it all. A celebratory mood—the females of the tribe kissed us on
our cheeks and we blushed.
Next day I carted the corpse to a farmer named Dubois, who hung (or hanged) it in his barn for a few days to tenderize it and then skinned and
butchered it in exchange for a quarter of the meat. Half the remaining cuts went into Mrs Van D’s freezer, except for a nice haunch. Various packages were donated to Mr Cutter, Rev. Ryan, and a few auxiliary ladies and their families. Word of my prowess was thus spread abroad via my generosity, and my profile in the community, as the pundits say, was enhanced. The antlers were saved for Ned who has promised to whittle a wooden plaque on which to mount them and display them in the Shop. The haunch was roasted with bacon and potatoes and consumed, with the Van D’s, en famille in their private dining room behind the Shop. I carved.
In the course of this feast, during which wine was taken by all (what degeneracy, eh?), I finally managed to have a real conversation with Katie. It
turned out we have something in common: in school last year she discovered Keats and Shelley and the Romantics, and thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread. My PhD thesis finally pays off ! I wowed her. Ned was a bit disappointed with me, I could tell. It would be cute if he were interested in poetry and she were the mad keen hunter—but the Antiochians prove to be gender conservatives I fear.
Frankly, I’m worried. I’ve never felt happier in my life. But isn’t this supposed to be a gothic situation? Some sort of cacagenic horror story?
Tomorrow I’ll drive to Margaretville and mail this missive.
I knew something had to go wrong and spoil my edenic illusions sooner or later. Let me tell you, and you’ll have to admit it was pretty spectacular.
Since the deer-hunting episode my stock had been on the rise. I was learning everybody’s names (not easy when there are so few to go ’round!) and was being greeted in church and on the street with some warmth by some of the natives. The novel was progressing well. I was having fun with Ned and Katie (Mrs Van D seemed to think I was a good influence!). Even a few of the older Hunt Club honchos had started to nod in a seemingly friendly way. This last little triumph sparked off the hubris that may have ruined my idyll in Antioch.
I’d become particularly palsy with Gideon Dubois (pronounced “Dooboys”), the farmer who butchered my deer. He’s about fifty, married with three
teenage kids, rather grizzled, given to bib overalls and an Amish-style black hat, far more interested in hunting than farming, and consequently not too prosperous. Drinking is also one of his pastimes, and last week he invited me to come along one night to the Pig’n’Poke Bar & Grill, the local watering hole, about four or five miles from town out on Route 54 near Turnwood. So I did.
Known to the regulars as “The Pig,” this roadside inn could be called typical if the present year were, say, 1957. Parking lot, bunker-shaped cabin, dark hops-sour atmosphere, tacky taxidermy on the stained wood walls, neon signs for extinct brands of beer, scarred pseudo-mahogany bar with scruffy art-deco stools, a few vinyl-upholstered booths, no sign of any “grill,” sallow laconic barkeep, jukebox with C & W classics, fly-stained mirror, array of dusty bottles.
Lined up at the bar we found a gaggle of men, to whom Dubois introduced me. Most of them seemed nondescript enough, but one of them, called Mike Davis (a Juke name) could pass in the shadows for a clone of the Mighty Hulk. Dressed à la lumberjack (plaid shirt, jeans and boots) bearded and scowling, he responded curtly to my how-d’ye-do and went on consuming his Pabst Blue Ribbon or whatever. The others acted warmer. We chatted. I offered to buy a round. Willie Nelson moaned in the background. Cheers.
Dubois and I switched to boilermakers.
Time went on and edges got blurry.
Drink was taken, as they say in Ireland. Then, more drink was taken. Round about eleven the joint had filled up a bit (even a couple of “ladies”)
but could scarcely be described as jumpin’. The desultory conversation turned to hunting. Dubois, like a pal, recounted the saga of my 6-point buck while I modestly refrained from any Big Talk.
Clicks and tut-tuts of admiration emanated from the assembly. I offered to buy another round.
Mike Davis, whose scowl had deepened considerably, piped up and grunted, “You ain’t buying nothin’ for me.”
“Now now, Mike,” soothed Dubois nervously.
“Sorry you feel that way, Mr Davis,” I said. ”Give everyone else one of whatever they’re drinking.”
“No sir,” trumpeted Davis in an affected country drawl that (to my ears) seemed to emanate more from Nashville than the Catskills. “I ain’t taking no
free drinks off no pinko pansy hipster from Noo Yawk!”
I stood up, accidently knocking over my barstool, which may have lent my action a more aggressive tone than I’d intended. Nevertheless, I was suddenly angry (and definitely plastered).
“What? Who are you calling a hipster?” I asked.
“You, faggot,” he riposted wittily.
“’Hipster’!? Do you see me dressed in narrow clothes? Am I wearing a little hat? Do I have a tiny beard?”
(In fact I was sporting my usual seedy tweed jacket and chinos, and probably looked like John Updike or something.)
Stumped for an adequate response, like Billy Budd, he resorted to action and hurled the dregs of his beer at my face.
“You fucking mongoloid idiot!” I enunciated.
This time he surprised me with solid left hook to my eye. I fell over quite abruptly, in a great deal of pain. Dead silence ensued.
Slowly I got to my feet. “How do you like that, city slicker?” he inquired.
In response I really surprised him — by leaping on him and showering him with flailing blows. One of them accidently landed on his lip, and split it.
At this point the other customers intervened and pulled us apart.
I was hustled outside and into my car.
Dubois took the driver’s seat.
Next day I was not only royally hung over, I also had a black eye the size and color of a Dunkin’ Donut.
Mr Cutter and/or Mr Dubois must have reported all this to the Van Donks, because around noon they all showed up (on foot). Mrs Van D had a
beefsteak for my eye and a thermos of chicken soup. Katie loyally delared that Mike Davis was “a bully and a bigot” and everyone knew it, and I wasn’t to worry. Ned said, “Yeah, and he’s stupid too!”
Naturally I was touched. But I feel a deep foreboding about this incident.
It’s a Sign. Maybe a Sign of the End.
Next day (yesterday, Oct. 21), Ned and Katie came back by themselves with a picnic basket packed by their mom. We had a heart-to-heart talk, the details of which I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that I find it extremely awkward to discover now that Katie is an angel and that I’ve fallen in love with her. It’s all so … Erskine Caldwell! Tobacco Road! Flannery O’Connor! I hate myself for these flippant remarks. Trying to make literature out of something mystical and true and simple. Except it isn’t simple at all. Oh lord, Oh lord. What now?
I’ve been keeping a low profile and nursing my shiner (and my agony) for Katie has visited every day, chaperoned decorously by Ned or Mrs Van D or both. We haven’t plighted our troth or anything, of course—but that hasn’t prevented us from gazing into each others’ eyes, etc., etc. Afterwards I don’t know whether to feel like some Shakespearean Hero—or Humbert Humbert.
Today — the Big Showdown.
The Delegation from the Community showed up at my cabin around eleven A.M.: Rev. Ryan, Mrs Van D, Mr Cutter, and an old white-bearded gent
in an antique three-piece suit, frayed at every cuff, with gold specs and gold watch-chain, named Judge Spingwater, whom I’d never met (although I’d seen him in Church); he turned out to be the Village Patriarch, the Elder, the real Power in the Land.
After the amenities had been gotten out of the way, we moved to Mr Cutter’s kitchen because there wasn’t enough room for everyone in my cabin. Coffee was served, but no cake (which I thought was significant).
The Process opened with a bland prologue by the Rev, assuring me of everyone’s good will and best wishes. The floor was then ceded to the Judge, who delivered the following address:
“Sir, we were all right sorry to hear about the, uh, incident with Mike Davis. He won’t cause you any more trouble, I can assure you. In fact, I think
your, uh, response to his attack impressed him somewhat. Impressed his lip anyway,” he chuckled. “But aside from that, the incident itself has raised some questions in the community. You will have gathered that we’re somewhat, well, isolated here, and we like it that way. Aside from a few fishermen in summer and hunters in winter, we don’t get many visitors. You’ve been here quite some time now, not that anyone grudges you the hospitality, no sir—but people are wondering about your, your intentions. You might think us closed and even narrow-minded, but we value our, our integrity as a community … and frankly, sir, we wonder how much longer you intend to stay on here …?”
“Judge Springwater,” I said, “I appreciate your concern. I’ve come to understand the Antioch Tradition of privacy and I wish to respect it. I don’t want
to be seen as an intruder. But the fact is, I like it here …a lot. If it were possible, I’d consider acquiring a modest bit of property hereabouts and becoming a more-or-less full-time resident.”
Mrs Van D smiled at me, but the others didn’t. They exchanged uneasy glances. “Well, of course, we’re not a gated community or anything, and property is property,” opined the Judge. “But … well … our tradition is one of, shall we say, unique desire for insulation from the outside world. Our history … ”
He faltered. I said:
“I know something about that history, sir, and I find it most … sympathetic. I can see myself fitting in with it.”
The Judge frowned slightly and turned to Rev. Ryan. “You haven’t told him anything about … ?”
“No, no,” said Ryan, “not at all.”
“The good reverend has been most discreet,” I interrupted. “But it happens that I am an amateur historian of the region, and I have been able to deduce certain things based on, well, primarily on local family names.”
The Judge now looked rather alarmed. “We worry precisely because we’re aware that you’re a writer, sir. We fear … ”
“I swear I’ll never publish a word about what I know.”
“Well, dammit, sir, what do you know?”
Long dramatic pause. I tried to consider my options. Decided on transparent honesty.
“I know that you are the Jukes.”
Gasps of shock met this confession. I went on hurriedly:
“Some years ago I researched the Jukes story—I acquired the two books—I’m sure you know them. I eventually tracked down the original archive in Albany, and copied the list of true names. At that point I changed my mind and decided to ditch the project. I considered that the victims of the Eugenics movement had gone through enough trouble and grief without my raking up old scandal. Also—I couldn’t find anyone who’d talk to me. I sensed a deep aversion to the subject. I backed out. I quit.
“At that time I had no idea Antioch even existed, much less that it had been settled by Jukes—and I was lost when I found the village last month.
And I believed the Jukes were long gone. But when I saw the names in the graveyard, something clicked.”
Ryan spoke up. “It would appear that you are not frightened or disgusted by the very idea of such a people?”
“Not at all. Frankly, I had come to believe that the Jukes were actually superior to the bourgeois pseudo-scientific racists who persecuted them… I
mean, you. I felt that they, that you were despised because you refused to conform to the dreary social ethic of the late 19th century. You rejected middleclass values and narrow morality. You refused to slave for capitalism—you hated work—and so do I. You lived like Indians—like true Americans should. No, I wasn’t disgusted. In truth… I envied the Jukes. I admire you and your way of life. If it were possible, I’d like to be part of it.”
Another long fraught silence ensued. At last, Mrs Van D spoke up for the first time.
“I think that would be lovely,” she said. “Judge, is there no way…?”
Springwater cleared his throat. “Hem… ahem… well… nothing is impossible, of course. But sir, are you really ready to give up the life of the city, the intellectual stimulation, the… the…?”
“I’m fed up with civilization. As for intellectual life, I can send away for books from remainder catalogues. You and Rev. Ryan are not exactly ignoramuses! I love to hunt and fish. I can grow a garden. I can….”
“I’m sure you can.”
“Well then, is there no way for me to be accepted into your community?”
“It has happened over the years that outsiders have married in. That was the case with Mr Cutter’s grandfather, wasn’t it, Harry?”
“Indeed, yes,” said Mr Cutter.
“But…” the Judge added.
“I could suggest a solution here,” I said. “I could ‘marry in’… if… that is, if it weren’t for the age problem. Mrs Van Donk… I’m talking about Katie. We…”
“Yes, I know. She’s told me. But what do you mean by ‘age problem’?”
“Isn’t she…. I mean, how old…?”
“She’s sixteen. Neddie’s fourteen. They look young for their age. They never told you?”
“No. But even sixteen….”
Ryan piped up. “Sixteen is legal. And anyway, we don’t ask the government’s permission. A church wedding’s good enough for us.”
“There’s something that you should know,” Mrs Van D said hesitantly. “My late husband and I… that is, we….”
“He knows,” said Ryan. “I was drunk and it slipped out.”
“Frankly, Mrs Van D,” I said, “I think it’s very romantic. And my lips are sealed. But… will Katie want to marry me?”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
So… that’s that. Later that day Katie said yes. It turns out that the Antiochites never use the word Juke, and from now on neither will I. According to their secret legend, they are actually a branch of the “lost” Esopus Indians, the aboriginal inhabitants of the land now called Ulster County. I am to be adopted into the Tribe. The initiation will take place in the Hunt Club on Oct. 31 — Halloween. How gothic, eh?
I’ll put a down-payment on a doublewide. Maybe I’ll declare myself too crazy to work and get SSI.
The wedding is set for December first.
I may switch from prose to poetry. But don’t worry—I’m sending you the MS of the novel along with this letter. Be generous!
love and peace