14 July 2008

Peter Matthiessen

[from Peter Matthiessen's Bone by Bone, 1999]

The habitual killer who is not a professional -- not a lawman, say, or an outlaw or a soldier -- must account for himself to his community and church and state. The fear that otherwise he might be banished was why Cox made excuses for his killings, why it was always someone's fault, why he could never accept responsibility for what he'd done. He had been banished long ago, of course, but did not know it yet.

Anyway, those men agreed that the first killing was the hard one. That was true even for Cox, and it was true for me. The next one comes easier, and after that there is nothing much to stop a man from the third and fourth and fifth. It is too late to go back so one may as well go forward, though the track goes nowhere, like a track into the Glades, dying out at last in the sea of grass. Out there, there is no destination, only a great emptiness, a great silence like the south wind in the grasses.

I wondered what Les might have become if circumstances had been different, if nothing had triggered him, laid bare that streak in him, if he had never killed that first time with Sam Tolen. Perhaps he would have gone on pitching, gone off to the major leagues and found the notoriety he needed, throwing beanballs when he felt an urge to hurt. Or perhaps that instinct toward murder would have sprouted anyway, like certain lunacies.

For most men of criminal persuasion, notoriety is crucial, with ill fame far better than no fame at all. Ill fame is a kind of honor that replaces traditional honor in certain circumstances. When we were in Duval County jail, a reference in the newspaper to "the handsome young murder suspect Leslie Cox" was the only detail Les gave a damn about. He would snatch that paper right out of your hand to see his name in type, read it over and over, as if that black ink in a public record restored his confidence in his own existence. That utter lack of knowledge of himself made him unpredictable in everything he did, like a rabid dog which has left behind the known traits of its kind to become a strange lone creature.

Bone by Bone

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