Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Road to Del Rio X: It's Not about Good vs Evil, It's about Side Bets

Okay, it's probably a mistake even bringing this up, but one of the reasons I decided to write Friend of the Devil was that I wanted to look at questions about what it means to be human as opposed to what it means to be a god.  Man lives only a short time, gods live almost forever.  Man becomes aware of his mortality early on and most of us never really manage to lost sight of that fact. But isn't having your mortality always dangling in front of you what gives our lives their flavor, all the sweetness and sadness, the longing and fulfillment. It's what allows us to grow and change and dwell on things.

I'm only saying all this because you need some kind of baseline if you're going to try to think what existence must be like for a god. Taking what we understand about ourselves and then applying it to someone who doesn't share any of those essential characteristics, you can get some idea what it must be like.

If you live almost forever, you might go whole eons and never spent a moment dwelling on your own ultimate mortality. Just think how, compared to them, our own seemingly-incredible capacity for denial and self-deception must seem absolutely insignificant. Gods might feel the same basic urges and emotions that we do, but it can't be the same thing at all. Gods might experience something like love, but never longing. They might have whims, but never doubt. Should they experience the pain of sadness or heartache, it will only last for a moment and then it's forgotten. Nothing makes that much of an impact on them, it can't. You'd have to be human for that to happen.

Basically man can change, but gods really can't.  Or can they?

In Friend of the Devil, there is a character named Stevens, who is most certainly the Devil incarnate. He is plainly evil, though in an over-the-hill sort of way. The god character is someone without a name, though the narrator, being a staunch atheist, refers to him simply as "the other guy." He should be good, but he's not. It's not that he's bad, he's just kind of an indifferent deity. You get the sense he might not have always been like this. Perhaps something happened.

My theory is that The Other Guy fell victim to the side bet.  For countless eons, or at least as men have walked on the Earth, he and Steven have been wagering with each other over the souls of good men to see how well they actually stand up to temptation. After running such a bet a couple million times, boredom must have set in and the two of them found that the one way to spice up the proceedings was in adding sidebets on the myriad little things that might or might not happen.

The narrator, Herbert T. Barrow, is ultimately a good man, though one whose moral compass is strictly his own. He refuses to believe in a god even after giving god a ride and sharing his food with him. He refuses to sing religious songs, songs of redemption and praise, because since in his estimation God doesn't exist, songs praising Him are all bullshit and part of a Big Lie and he won't have anything to do with it. When Stevens offers him his pocketwatch in exchange for a single hymn of praise, Herbert refuses on principle. It doesn't matter that the Devil's Pocketwatch is surely a priceless thing, and that singing even an incredibly sacreligious song would fulfill the terms of Stevens' offer,  Herbert steadfastly refuses because his lack of faith is steadfast.

Herbert was a Marine in the Great War. He saw a tremendous amount of killing and killed a lot of enemy soldiers during the fighting.  He vowed, in his atheist's heart, never to kill again. Despite their endless wagering, God and the Devil no longer even care about whether or not Herbert will return to killing, while he travels unwillingly with Bonnie and Clyde. Presumably they've made that bet, but all they really care about is the sidebet on what kind of weapon will he pick when the moment does come. Will it be a pistol, a rifle, or a BAR?

God, the other guy, whatever you or Herbert wants to call him, has stopped caring about whether Herbert chooses good over evil.  He really doesn't give a shit.

Bonnie, Clyde and Herbert get pursued by men who aren't "The Laws." They're something else.  They're men who've heard about The Devil's Pocketwatch and, unaware that Herbert had kicked it out of his car a month earlier back in Arkansas, they've come hunting for it.

Texas is a great big state and the last part of the Road to Del Rio takes place somewhere, anywhere, in it between the Oklahoma and Mexican borders. Go find a map and look at the vastness and put your finger down on a spot between Fort Worth, Lubbock, and San Angelo. Bet you anything that's exactly where it takes place.

Following is an excerpt from Friend of the Devil:

"Now, next stop: Del Rio, Texas, the garden spot of the Rio Grande Valley. And I understand the Royal Consolidated Chemical Corporation is going to have an opening for a singing cowboy in a matter of days.”

Del Rio. Funny, I’d almost forgotten my dreams of going there.

“So who won?”

“Who won? Well, nobody won. It was a draw.” He says it like it’s nothing. “We agreed it’d run for a set amount of time. Now the time’s up and you’re free to go.” He shrugs like a guy who’d been born with his hands in his pockets.

“So how’d you do with the side bets?”

He brightens. “Pretty good, actually. Won eight out of thirteen.” He grins and puts his thumb up.

“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” I say. “But then you were betting on me picking up a gun and killing people.

The young man corrects me. “I was betting on you picking up a BAR and killing people.”

“Oh,” I say.

“You’re not an easy one to predict, you know. You do a lot of surprising things, very surprising things. But, you know, that’s what makes humanity so fascinating.”


“Hey, you’d better get moving,” he says to me. “Remember, when you get to Brady, ask for Red.”

“Right,”I say and start across the field.

“Hey, you know, you don’t have to thank me or anything like that,” he says.

“I wasn’t going to,” I say and pick up my pace.

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