For Jack Waters, set in 1904, I conceived of the title character, the book’s main character, as an American southerner. He lives outside New Orleans. I pictured him as a solitary guy – no wife or kids – who lives on a large inherited estate. He likes comforts but has no interest in working or business. Since he makes his money playing poker, he doesn’t have to hold down a job or engage in commerce, and though he keeps his mansion in relatively good shape, he has let his estate, which was once a cotton plantation, go to seed. In other words, Jack Waters has a whiff of decadence about him.
Waters is descended from pre-Civil War southern aristocracy, the slave-owning class, and the story makes clear that before the war, slaves did work on that land. His father, who died during the Civil War when Waters was an infant, ran the plantation. But this is Louisiana, with its unique racial classifications, and Waters’ mother, the one who brought him up after the war, was a Creole of color, born well-to-do in her own right. She was well-educated as a child. Despite the rough conditions after the war, she held onto the estate and scraped out a living to support her son, and it’s she who taught him poker. Her influence on him cannot be underestimated. And this basic racial fluidity in Waters, who happens to be light-skinned, is something I thought I could subtly explore as the story unfolds. I also figured I could touch on his indeterminate class position. To different characters he encounters, questions recur. Is Waters white or black? Once he flees the US as a fugitive murderer and settles on a Caribbean island, is he a person loyal to the rich, the landed class, or does he want to help the peasants and fighters fomenting revolution? And even when he joins the rebels, albeit for a non-political reason stemming from a wrong done to him by the island’s dictator, why does he get so upset when his cohorts among the rebels, whether with affection or not, call him “Yankee”?
There’s a key term I came across soon after starting Jack Waters that helped me clarify my conception of his character. The novelist V.S. Naipaul, in a piece he wrote about Joseph Conrad, describes Conrad’s Lord Jim as a book primarily about the theme of the racial straggler. Lord Jim, if you remember, is a white seaman, British, who after an incident in which he disgraces himself, winds up in a far-flung and “primitive” place where he takes up a second life among Asians. He’s one among several Conrad characters who, for one reason or another, become outcast from the people they’re familiar with (Europeans) and who insinuate themselves into the life and culture of another (non-European) people. Besides Lord Jim, the famous Kurtz from Heart of Darkness comes to mind, though how much Conrad reflects or criticizes the imperialism of his time is a subject for debate.
I happen to love Conrad’s books and stories, and Naipaul’s observation set me thinking about Jack Waters. I had something of a Conrad set-up going, with this guy, an American, who would wind up on a Caribbean island and start a second life with the people there. But in Jack Waters’ case, it would not be a white man who settles in a brown place, but a mixed person able to pass for white who ends up in a place where he’s different things to different people, depending on who he’s talking to.
Waters is light-skinned enough to pass for white. In his early days on the Caribbean island where he flees, when he’s ingratiating himself into the upper social circles there so he can play poker with the wealthiest people, he lets people think he’s white. The island, like most places, has its own racial hierarchy, with the lighter skinned people, for the most part, on top. It serves Waters’ purpose to let those people think he’s white. But when Waters, for the reasons I mentioned, abandons the island’s affluent to join the rebel cause, he runs into problems with some of the fighters who are black. They’re not crazy about admitting to their ranks a white southern American, a guy who if he was born years earlier would have owned slaves. Faced with this criticism, Waters tries to convince them that he’s not really white. After all, his mother was a Creole of color, and anybody with a Creole parent isn’t considered truly white. Waters is a slippery figure when it comes to race, and it is in this sense that I envisioned him being a racial straggler. Being a person who is a mix, he’ll accentuate whatever part of himself best serves his needs at the time. He’ll tag along with the group that can best advance his goals. It’s similar to how he obfuscates his class loyalties, not letting people read whether he feels he’s aristocratic or someone sympathetic to the poor. He’s not only a poker player, Jack Waters, but a shifty player in the game of life. Perhaps the one constant point of his identity is how he sees himself as a southerner, which is why when the islanders call him a “Yankee,” seeing him first and foremost as a man from the United States, he feels annoyed and insulted. What southern person in 1904 wants to be called a Yankee? On other hand, he’s not thrilled to be called “Dixie” either when it comes from a black islander who clearly doesn’t use the nickname as a compliment.
I had an enjoyable time playing around with the idea of Jack Waters as racial straggler and social class chameleon, but of course I hope that all this stuff is embedded within the story. These are threads that develop through the plot. It’s a plot that unfolds in such a way to exert maximum pressure on Waters, and it forces him to make decisions he might not otherwise want to make. But you can’t be a straggler forever. You can’t play one side against another forever. Either Waters commits to something, both in himself and between the combatants he’s dealing with, or he will not survive.