I’ve been getting into some occult shit lately, and happened upon a ritual to transport your consciousness across time. No animals were harmed, but lots of crystals were involved. Anyway, I decided what better reason to perform this magic than to use it to travel back to the Caribbean in 1904 and kick it with the poker-playing, knife-wielding, revolutionary-by-accident Jack Waters, the titular character from Scott Adlerberg’s latest novel. We met at a village cantina, and shit got deep the more rum we consumed.
Kelby: Jack Waters, man of the hour. I appreciate you choosing a bar for us to meet that’s more in my price range. Your fluidity between classes is not something I’m used to seeing. Way I’m used to seeing it is the wealthy like to keep separate company from the poor, and vice versa. So what is it that draws you to both aristocratic and lower working class crowds, and how do you manage to hold your own—for the most part—in each of these vastly different circles?
Jack Waters: The way I see it, people are people no matter what class they come from. They behave pretty much the same way regardless of their wealth or lack of wealth, and it’s not all that hard to slip between those different circles. But as someone who makes his living playing poker, I’m most interested in how people are when playing cards. Do they have poker skill? Can I get a good read on them over the course of a night playing with them? Of course I prefer playing with wealthier people because there’s more money to win. I don’t especially like to play cards for small stakes, and where’s the honor in winning against poor people? I don’t want to take their hard-earned money. If I’m better at cards and take their money and they can’t buy food for a week… no… I’m not of that mindset. So I stick to playing cards against affluent people, but I’m not big on socializing with that set. I could care less about status or power. Remember, I’m the guy who inherited a big estate near New Orleans and let the grounds get overgrown and wild. I didn’t want to lord it over people. My father owned slaves, but that was before the Civil War. Who wants to lord it over other people? Not me. And anyway, when I’m not playing cards, I like to just ride my horse out in the bush, do a bit of hunting, hang out at a local bar somewhere, and then I just talk with the regular people and the less they know about me the better. I’m a guy in a bar doing shots of rum. We’re all equals there, and who cares about social status? Of course, my wealthier friends, the ones I play cards with, can’t understand how I mingle with the campesinos. But that’s their hang-up, not mine.
K: You know, my first impression of you was this sort of social chameleon, but really, it seems like you just don’t have the hang-ups most people have on class, politics, and the like. As a serious poker player, though, I know you’ve got to possess senses of honor and justice—I mean, you said yourself, there’s no honor in taking a poor person’s money, and when it comes to justice… there’s that occasional sore loser that needs a little, um, let’s say “persuasion” to pay up, right? So where is that line for you, or does a line exist, as to who you associate with? Or maybe a deeper form of that question: which way does your loyalty swing, when shit goes down?
JW: Oh, there’s a line all right! You mention the sore loser who doesn’t want to pay up after losing in poker. There’s also the person who plays cards and tries to cheat. Not that anyone’s gotten away with doing that against me. One person tried, cheating I mean, and things didn’t fare too well for him. But that, cheating, and welshing on a debt–those are the places where I draw the line. And you’d be surprised the kind of people who don’t pay their poker debts. A guy can be head of a country, with the country’s entire treasury at his command, rich as he wants to be, and because he didn’t like losing at cards, doesn’t pay. I should know, obviously, because it happened to me. And where do I stand when that happens? That man, president or not, top army general or not, dictator or not–he can call himself whatever he wants–has to go. Not easy to get him, though, with all the guards around him and his palace, so if you have to, you join those fighting against him. You try to help the people fighting to bring that bastard down. Damn, right! That’s where I stand when the shit goes down. I stand with the people fighting against the sons of bitches who have everything on their side and still won’t fork out the cash they lost playing cards. The people who feel they’re untouchable. No one’s untouchable.
K: Damn, I have got to say, I admire the death-grip you keep on your convictions. You and I are from different… let’s say, “generations,” but our worlds are similar in that a lot of people sitting in certain circles feel comfortable with, or even inspired by, a certain hothead in a position of power, and then a lot of people—mostly lower class—strongly oppose him. So, there’s this constant air of tension, aggression, and passion, but I feel like—even though my sympathies are with the opposition—there is a sort of hollow unity amongst those against him, because the opposition seems to mostly be based on abstract political ideas instead of a personal sting of injustice. If someone said, “This bastard won’t pay his poker debt, so I’m taking him down,” rather than, “I don’t like the way he presents himself, someone else should have his position,” I feel like we’d have some positive action going on, but instead we’ve got this apathetic rage. I know you’re politically neutral, but in your experience, what do you think—does it take a specific, personal feeling of injustice to drive a revolution, or do you think people who hold similar ideals are enough to start an uprising?
JW: People with common ideals sometimes are enough to start an uprising, but if you talk to each individual person with those ideals, you’re likely to find something personal to them that led them to have those ideals. Something might have happened to them, they might have experienced loss or injustice in a real way or over a long period, or maybe they were just raised a certain way and grew up with ideals instilled in them. Or perhaps they just have a certain psychological makeup that predisposes them to some form of rebellion. Why does one person who sees gross injustice feel that an authoritarian will solve the problems and another who sees that same injustice feel a mass uprising from below is needed? It’s that individual’s mental and emotional makeup that decides. Then the person finds an ideology that their makeup is comfortable with. But there’s no intrinsic rightness or value in the ideology. Maybe I’m off base, of course, but my view: the political more often than not stems from the personal, and ideologies and political theories get a lot more importance put on them than they deserve.
K: Therein lies the danger of identifying with a political party, yeah? Hiding your individuality inside a hive mind. Or maybe that’s my own psychological make-up being too fucked to see the individual within a group. You’ve given me lots to reflect on here, Jack.
Switching gears a bit, I was curious: how does Caribbean life fare for you versus New Orleans? What are your favorite things to do on the island?
JW: I like the Caribbean very much. I came to like it. I lived my whole life just outside New Orleans until I had to, you know, leave fast. But one reason I was fine with going to the Caribbean was because in many ways it’s not all that different from Louisiana. Hot humid weather, lush forests, all that greenery. I love it. Even the downpours I like. I like the slow pace of life and just taking my horse out for a ride in the jungle. Sometimes I’ll take my rifle and do a little hunting. Sometimes I’ll stop at a local bar somewhere, out away from the capital, in a village, and have a few drinks, talking with the people there. Give me rum and a decent conversation with someone and I’m happy. I’ll take that over the fancy dinners and parties among my more upper class acquaintances in the capital. I got invites to those, believe me, and would chat with people to establish myself in that world also, but it’s not the same. I don’t find people worried about their status and their power all that interesting. I much prefer being out on my horse and riding around in old comfortable clothes. I like things a little rough, if I’m honest.
K: Man, I understand what you mean about even liking the downpours. There’s something about rain in a foreign place—especially someplace tropical like the Caribbean—that feels sort of… magical. That could be the rum talking, though. I’m trying to keep up with you on the rounds. Unless there’s anything else you’d like to say on the record… shall we break out the cards?
JW: Let’s break out the cards. Really, are there any sweeter words in the English language than those?
Scott Adlerberg lives in Brooklyn. His first book was the Martinique-set crime novel Spiders and Flies (2012). Next came the noir/fantasy novella Jungle Horses (2014), followed by the psychological thriller Graveyard Love (2016). He is a regular contributor to sites such as Lithub and Criminal Element, and each summer he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Manhattan. His new novel, Jack Waters, a historical revenge thriller, is out now from Broken River Books.
Kelby Losack is the author of Heathenish (Broken River Books) and Toxic Garbage (self-published). He works as a custom cabinet maker and lives with his wife in Gulf Coast Texas. Follow him on Twitter: @HeathenishKid