Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Of all the characters in Oxherding Tale, Horace Bannon, the Soulcatcher, is probably my favorite. Many decades ago when I was a writer in my early twenties, I read that it was helpful if a work of fiction had a Magnet Character. That is, someone who is larger-than-life, fascinating, unpredictable, imaginative, shocking, outrageous, perhaps even a bit dangerous, and instantly captures the attention of an audience or reader whenever he or she steps on stage---like a magnet. Someone we must watch. 

In Faith and the Good Thing, that character is the Swamp Woman. In Middle Passage, it's Capt. Ebenezer Falcon. In Dreamer, it's the double for Martin Luther King Jr., Chaym Smith. In Moby Dick, it's Ahab. In John Gardner's Grendel, it's the gold-hoarding dragon. In Jack London's The Sea Wolf, it's Wolf Larsen. And in Oxherding Tale, the Magnet Character is the Soulcatcher (and possibly at times, but to a lesser degree, Flo Hatfield).

Beyond all doubt he is a mad serial killer. He has murdered hundreds of humans and other sentient beings. His body is heavily tattooed with the images of his black victims, which at the novel's end present a hair-raising vision of the interconnectedness of Being similar to the one Krishna reveals to Arjuna. Those two characters are important, because Bannon is in possession of a warped philosophy of duty and karma (his duty or pre-destined fate, as he sees it, being to kill) that is right out of the Bhagavad Gita, Book XVIII, verse or sloka 47, where it says, "Better one's own duty, though imperfect, than the duty of another well performed; performing the duty prescribed by one's own nature, one does not incur evil."
In a slave state where runaway bondsmen are legally hunted, the Soulcatcher (that was the name black people often used for slave-catchers) finds himself in the bizarre world of the Peculiar Institution, where his psychotic urge to murder is not only allowed but encouraged and needed by a social system of racial oppression that requires massive, regular doses of violence to maintain white supremacy. Bannon provides that violence, fulfilling antebellum society's need for an executioner, or what Frederick Douglass called a Negro breaker. He sees himself as someone who is selflessly performing a service to the State, i.e., the slave state of South Carolina. He is the veterinarian who puts homeless dogs to sleep; the person who injects lethal fluid into the veins of the Death Row inmate after all his appeals have failed.
But part of the Soulcatcher's uniqueness, the way he "breaks" his prey, lies in his method. He traps them psychologically, or spiritually. When he slowly hunts down a runaway slave, he does so with the greatest empathy (think of the "mirror neurons" we all have that allow us to understand Others) and manipulation. He identifies completely with a slave's suffering and pain, his hopes, fears and dreams (his "soul," if you like). He gains that black person's trust. Like a dear friend, he enters with compassion into that individual man or woman's way of thinking (as an actor playing a role might), making it his own. That allows him to anticipate their next move. (In another context, he might be the pimp who woos a runaway, teenage girl, working hard to gain her trust before he puts her out on the street.) By the end of this process, Bannon's act of murder, his extinction of their misery based on their being reduced to chattel, comes almost as an act of mercy---like someone who pulls the plug during an assisted suicide.

I've often thought that one could easily create such a character for the Holocaust, someone who thoroughly sympathizes with the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany (or perhaps is secretly Jewish himself), and as a tool of the Third Reich uses that travesty of compassion to guide them straight to Treblinka and Auschwitz. The method I've just described enables Bannon to hunt, then kill Andrew Hawkins's father, George. But the Soulcatcher fails to capture one important, black character in the novel: Reb the Coffinmaker, a member of the Allmuseri tribe (which later figures prominently in Middle Passage) who is the resident Taoist/Buddhist in Oxherding Tale. That failure convinces Bannon to cease his bloody work as a Negro hunter. One might say his failure to capture Reb leads to the Soulcatcher's own liberation.

So is there a "moral" for this post? I think perhaps it is this: Try to create a Magnet Character for your stories. That person will provide you and your readers with a great deal of fun. 

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