Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly
from north to south, forming between them a number of
valleys and plateaus. Overlooking one of these valleys,
which is dominated by two volcanoes, lies, six thousand
feet above sea level, the town of Quauhnahuac. It is situated
well south of the Tropic of Cancer, to be exact on the
nineteenth parallel, in about the same latitude as the Revillagigedo
Islands to the west in the Pacific, or very much
further west, the southernmost tip of Hawaii—and as the
port of Tzucox to the east on the Atlantic seaboard of Yucatán
near the border of British Honduras, or very much
further east, the town of Juggernaut, in India, on the Bay of
The walls of the town, which is built on a hill, are high, the streets and lanes tortuous and broken, the roads winding. A fine American-style highway leads in from the north but is lost in its narrow streets and comes out a goat track. Quauhnahuac possesses eighteen churches and fiftyseven cantinas. It also boasts a golf course and no less than four hundred swimming pools, public and private, filled with the water that ceaselessly pours down from the mountains, and many splendid hotels.
In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of
Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its
antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting
port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy
deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all,
would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead
by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the
prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made
difficult of access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their
shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a
trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Placido as if within an
enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of
lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.
On one side of this broad curve in the straight seaboard of the Republic of Costaguana, the last spur of the coast range forms an insignificant cape whose name is Punta Mala. From the middle of the gulf the point of the land itself is not visible at all; but the shoulder of a steep hill at the back can be made out faintly like a shadow on the sky.
This book is about luck disguised and perceived as non-luck (that is, skills) and, more generally, randomness disguised and perceived as non-randomness (that is, determinism). It manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason. Such confusion crops up in the most unexpected areas, even science, though not un such an accuentuated and obvious manner as it does in the world of business. It is endemic in politics, as it can be encountered in the shape of a country's president discoursing on the jobs that "he" created, "his" recovery, and "his predecessor's" inflation.
To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don't quit staring at that line and don't take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you'll hypnotize yourself and you'll come to just at the moment when the right fron wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you'll try to jerk her back on but you can't because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you'll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as the starts the dive. But you won't make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he'll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he'll say, "Lawd God, hit's a-nudder one done done hit!" And the next nigger down the next row, he'll say, "Lawd God," and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull and crossbones. Later on love vine will climb up it, out of the weeds.
Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: 'Have they discovered evolution yet?' Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To be fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist. Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter. We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: 'The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.'
SCENE I. Venice. A street.
Enter RODERIGO and IAGO
Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
'Sblood, but you will not hear me:
If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me.
Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
Despise me, if I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp'd to him: and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place:
But he; as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff'd with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators; for, 'Certes,' says he,
'I have already chose my officer.'
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calm'd
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I--God bless the mark!--his Moorship's ancient.
We were wanderers from the beginning. We knew every stand of tree for
a hundred miles. When the fruits or nuts were ripe, we were there. We
followed the herds in their annual migrations. We rejoiced in fresh
meat. through stealth, feint, ambush, and main-force assault, a few of
us cooperating accomplished what many of us, each hunting alone, could
not. We depended on one another. Making it on our own was as ludicrous
to imagine as was settling down.
Working together, we protected our children from the lions and the hyenas. We taught them the skills they would need. And the tools. Then, as now, technology was the key to our survival.
When the drought was prolonged, or when an unsettling chill lingered in the summer air, our group moved on—sometimes to unknown lands. We sought a better place. And when we couldn't get on with the others in our little nomadic band, we left to find a more friendly bunch somewhere else. We could always begin again.
For 99.9 percent of the time since our species came to be, we were hunters and foragers, wanderers on the savannahs and the steppes. There were no border guards then, no customs officials. The frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the Earth and the ocean and the sky—plus occasional grumpy neighbors.
When the climate was congenial, though, when the food was plentiful, we were willing to stay put. Unadventurous. Overweight. Careless. In the last ten thousand years—an instant in our long history—we've abandoned the nomadic life. We've domesticated the plants and animals. Why chase the food when you can make it come to you?
For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven't forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game—none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band's, or even your species' might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.
Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: "I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas..."
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen
shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields
with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last
wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but
in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he
quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the
fire and watches him.
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. 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.
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twister and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboard creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My
arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or
three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his
execution. I didnt have to go but I did. I sure didnt wanted to. He'd
killed a fourteen year old girl and I can tell you right now I never
did have no great desire to visit with him let alone go to his
execution but I done it. The papers said it was a crime of passion and
he told me there wasnt no passion to it. He'd been datin this girl,
young as whe was. he was nineteen. And he told me that he had been
plannin to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said
that if they turned hum out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was goin
to hell. Told it to me out of his own mouth. I dont know what to make
of that. I surely dont. I thought I'd never seen a person like that
and it got me to wonderin if maybe he was some new kind. I watched
them strap him into the seat and shut the door. He might of looked a
bit nervous about it but that was about all. I really believe that he
knew he was goin to be in hell in fifteen minutes. I believe
that. Called me Sheriff. But I didnt know what to say to him. What do
you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul? Why would you
say anything? I've thought about it a good deal. But he wasnt nothin
compared to what was comin down the pike.
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I dont know what them eyes was the windows to and I guess I'd as soon not know. But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that's where this is goin. It has done brought me to a place in my life I would not of thought I'd of come to. Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he's real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont to it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it's even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they'll know it. They'll see it in your heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that. I think now that maybe I never would.
Suddenly: The milk truck cut a sharp right turn and grazed the
curb. The driver lost the wheel. He panic-popped the brakes. He
induced a rear-end skid. A Wells Fargo armored car clipped the milk
Mark it now:
7:16 a.m. South L.A., 84th and Budlong. Residential darktown. Shit shacks with dirt front yards.
The jolt stalled out both vehicles. The milk truck driver hit the dash. The driver's side door blew wide. The driver keeled and hit the sidewalk. He was fortyish male Negro.
The armored car notched some hood dents. Three guards got out and scoped the damage. They were white men in tight khakis. They wore Sam Browne belts with buttoned pistol flaps.
They knelt beside the milk truck driver. The guy twitched and gasped. The dashboard bound gouged hist forehead. Blood dripped into his eyes.