On the pyre

In this week’s Field Notes, I mention the funeral scene from my 2019 novel Rule of Capture, which I was reminded of by this fascinating article in this week’s New York Times about the new trend in certain American quarters to have oneself cremated on a pyre surrounded by loved ones watching your body burn for hours. A surprising yet affirming thing to read about, since when I wrote a scene that imagined such neo-primitive practices being adopted by the home-grown fascists who are trying to take control of the country in that novel, it seemed like a slipstream detour from the grounding in the real I had otherwise been working to maintain. And of all the things in that book that later seemed prescient, this one at least causes no harm to others.

For readers of the newsletter who are interested in the full scene, I am excerpting it here—the opening paragraphs of Chapter 35, which comes late in the second act:

They’d had a regular memorial for Judge Elwood earlier that week, in the church his widow chose, but the real funeral was that night at midnight, on a closed-off overpass west of downtown, part of one of the private freeways reserved for the wealthy elite. More than a hundred friends gathered, more men than women, with their best classic cars from the golden years before the war, all tuned to the same private FM feed, blasting border metal at the city below while the judge’s body lay there atop the hood of his 1989 Cadillac Conquistador, which in turn had been raised on a pyre of rebar and mesquite doused with high-octane fuel drained from the tank of the car. The boys had gotten good at building those pyres in a way that you could drive the preferred chariot of the deceased right up there at the beginning of the fest and not need a crane or a bunch of floor jacks.

The judge was dressed in a chalk-striped charcoal flannel suit with a green foulard tie, white handkerchief, and the snake boots he wore for the hunt. His party lapel pin glistened like black gold, reflecting the moonlight. His favorite Glock was holstered right there in the waistband of his suit pants behind the sterling belt buckle monogrammed with an etching of an eagle clutching a rat in its talons. The nine-inch knife with its hand-carved handle hung from the belt in its handsome Brooks Brothers scabbard, and folded into his arms was the Beretta double-barreled .12-gauge with the inlaid silver image of Robert McAlpin Williamson, the Republic of Texas-era judge known as Three-Legged Willie for his primitive prosthesis, and for the Bowie knife he always wore under his judicial robes.

The judge’s friends lined up to pay their respects, leaving gifts with him to take off to the beyond. Cactus flowers, black and gold-jacketed bullets and shells, flasks of fine tequila and whisky, cigars, antlers and condoms. People talked and told stories about him, and then they turned off the music and his wife walked up with her bold blonde hair done up in a vintage coif with a fresh streak of silver through the bangs that matched the platinum sequins of her dress. She gave a talk about what her husband stood for and what he believed the future would be if they continued the fight to which he had committed his life, a patriotism made from blood and dirt and the melding of the Anglo and Spanish traditions of law, property and the enjoyment of the life of born leaders. Then the mistress got her turn, talking about some of the things he liked to do for fun, including an anecdote about the trip they had taken after the last diagnosis had come in, which involved three extramarital couples on a private jet loaded with spirits and firearms and a big-ass tent you could put up in the desert after you landed. His daughter talked about his most important decisions, listing some of the most dangerous enemies of the state he had incarcerated. And then they each kissed him in turn, intense goodbye kisses to warm dead flesh. They stood together after that, arms locked, and sang the Song, a cappella, so crisp and clear that it carried far from that vaulted freeway even though you could hear the tremors of loss in their chorale. When they were done, the men took the torches they had been holding, and put them to the pyre, as the feed came back on with “Judgment Day,” the last instrumental duel between Page and Gibbons before they went their separate ways. Somehow the flames engulfed the Caddy just at the part where the drums and guitar find their shared harmony and then the bass joins in and then the screaming wails, the unofficial anthem of twenty years of flag-draped victory celebrations, and you could almost believe in the mythic past these people accepted as true heritage.

For more about Rule of Capture, including links to longer excerpts and places where you can find the book, check out the book’s main page here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comments open