Fires burn along the town’s curbs, and excrement pits smolder and send noxious gases through the air. Wells have been poisoned, and the nearby canal is thoroughly polluted and odious. Carcasses of animals and flimsy tar-paper shacks dot the landscape. Banners, which once celebrated warriors marching off to victory, now lie in mud, and a few of those same soldiers, now ragged and defeated, trudge home with venereal disease. All the citizens are clothed in drab gray, and the prevailing imagery suggests feebleness and sterility.
Most inhabitants stay indoors, but those who are active suggest a society of cruelty and destructiveness. Two parallel plots unravel in the night. In the one Zizendorf and three accomplices string wire across a road to snare the motorcycle-bound Leevey, a lone Jewish American soldier in charge of a third of Germany’s territory. In killing this overseer, Zizendorf believes he is inaugurating a new, invigorated Germany, free of oppression. At the same time, a figure named the “Duke” chases a child through the streets, eventually murdering the child and serving the flesh to his family for dinner.
John Hawkes served as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Italy and Germany during the war and was inspired to write the novel after reading a magazine article about a cannibal in Bremen, where he had been stationed. Thus, the novel’s title refers not only to the Duke but, more important, to Zizendorf and the German nation itself. All are predatory creatures scavenging in a blasted landscape and feeding themselves on their own carcasses. To emphasize the circularity of despair and predation, Hawkes shifts the temporal setting in the middle section to 1914 and follows one of the characters from that time to the novel’s present.
Sportswelt Brauhaus (sportz-VELT BROW-hows). Chic restaurant and bar patronized by the wealthy and Germany’s military elite. Stella Snow, an elderly woman in 1945, appears as a young singer in 1914, singing at the Sportswelt Brauhaus. The season shifts to summer, and Stella is an object of sexual desire. The restaurant is bucolic, with a garden of fragrant flowers. It is decorated by trellised vines and filled with the calls of night birds. Linden trees adorn the horizon, and the rising sun casts disarming blue shadows.
To all appearances, the place is edenic, but a serpent inhabits this garden in the form of jealous lovers and a self-satisfied military. The seeds of Nazi Germany have already been sown in the aristocratic elite of pre-World War I society and are most evident in Stella’s marriage to Ernst Snow, son of the restaurant’s owner.
Upper World. Mountain hotel to which the privileged escape. After a chaotic courtship, the two retreat to the mountains, where they honeymoon and temporarily leave the growing national tension behind. This geographically elevated place is compared to Valhalla, the residence of divinity, and is characterized as being near to God. For a brief time the new couple appear contented, but reminders of the lower world intrude in the figure of a decrepit horse and stark icons of Christ’s crucifixion and death, which Ernst compulsively buys and uses to decorate their marriage bed. No sooner do they return to the troubled world below than Ernst dies and the first World War begins.
Hawkes’s Germany is country of terror and destruction, with each generation instructing its young on the arts of self-ruination. Stella and Zizendorf represent the social extremes of the nation–one a crass, amoral survivor and the other a deluded megalomaniac who will surely lead the nation into another military disaster.