Better Environmentalism Through Killing
Ted Nugent, '70s rock relic, loves the wild outdoors. Loves to seek out the earth's creatures, large and small, and shoot them. Loves that he could be the conservation movement's most valuable ally. Which is to say, he loves irony.
‘I ought to kill that little shit,” Ted Nugent says, and hits the accelerator. A hundred feet ahead, a black cat stands poised on the roadside, alert to the throaty hum of the three-quarter-ton emerald-green Chevrolet Suburban now hurtling toward it through the sweet autumn air. “Oooooooooh, kittykittykitty.” Nugent scoots forward in his seat. “C’mere, kitty.”
It’s our first morning together, and we’re circumnavigating Nugent’s home: 900 acres of glacier-cut Michigan woodscape 40 miles west of Ann Arbor that he refers to as Ted’s World. One of the first things a visitor learns upon entering Ted’s World is that there exists a set of exacting, unbreakable rules, and the most important rule is that natural balances must be maintained.
“Do you have any idea how many millions of songbirds are killed by feral cats each year?” he asked me earlier, fingering the tiny crosshatches on the grip of the Glock ten-millimeter semiautomatic he carries above his right hip. “Nugent Varmint Patrol. I kill every cat I see.”
The speedometer noses 80, and I brace for the swerve, the muffled thump. It doesn’t come. As we reach the cat, Nugent extends his right hand, sights down a long index finger, and mimics a shot. The cat springs into the trees, chased by a bright spume of maple leaves. Nugent smiles and nods, pleased by the exchange. His fingers drum the wheel in the pit-a-pat rhythm that plays beneath his every sentence.
“Bada-ba-boom, bada-ba-bam, Mother Nature can’t kill ’em like I can,” he sings. Then he leans across the seat and gives my shoulder a brotherly punch, as he does when he’s feeling expansive and wants to jostle me into realizing that he’s got the universe boiled down to a hard, knowable kernel.
“Death is the truth!” Nugent says. “Anybody who doesn’t see that is a fool living in a bullshit fantasy world. You can either participate as a reasoning, caring player in the cycle of life and death or you can turn your back on it. There’s no middle ground. In the final analysis, will I be condemned for shooting cats? Yes. But I think it’s condemnable not to shoot cats.”
He turns to face me, indignant. As the road flashes by unheeded, he lets me in on another truth.
“What everybody sees as offensive is actually attractive, and what they see as attractive is actually offensive.” He punches my shoulder again, softer this time. “Death is good. Wildness is good.”
“Is Ted Nugent good?” I ask.
“Is Ted Nugent good?” He smiles at the highway, and mashes the accelerator to the floor, his voice rising to a jubilant shout. “TED NUGENT IS GREAT! TED NUGENT IS GREAT! TED NUGENT IS FUCKING GREAT!”
The chain-link gate that marks the entrance to Ted’s World stands ten feet high, 20 feet wide, and is wreathed in a bright mosaic of No Trespassing signs. A single-lane track leads into a cattail swamp, through a tangle of white oak and hickory, and on to a drafty corrugated-steel building where Nugent spends each weekday morning from six to ten hosting his Detroit radio call-in show.
“Uncle Ted here, and I am bright-eyed and throbbing with Tedstosterone because the bucks are on the move, the Nuge is in the groove, I am swinging by a nostril hair over the yawning abyss, and my senses are erect, organic, and orgasmic with the spirit of the wild.” Pause. “How are you?”
Then he laughs, his signature, demented, well-practiced giggle that sounds like something out of a Three Stooges movie ù NYAH-hah-hah! ù and that, like many other elements of his repertoire, has less to do with how he feels than how he wants you to feel: entertained, off-balance, intrigued. We shake hands, and it begins. “I thought you’d be one of those pastrami-breath New York motherfuckers, and I’d have to gut you with a soup spoon,” he says into the microphone. The voice is boyish and clear, with broad midwestern vowels and hard-cut consonants. “The liberal media come down here and try to do a probe o’ Nuge, try to tell America what I’m about, like I’m gonna fit in some magazine story.”
He roosts on a black swivel chair beneath fluorescent lights, tipped toward the microphone as if he were about to spring through it. Rock musicians are incapable of aging gracefully, but at 49 Nugent is at least in the ballpark. He’s a rawboned six-three and 180 pounds, with facial features that would seem oversize on a less commanding visage: the wedge of nose with large equine nostrils, the broad mouth bridged by a Fu Manchu mustache, the hazel eyes under bushy eyebrows whose stray tendrils twitch and hop like insect antennae. A touch of gray flickers in his signature mane; the hint of a belly shows beneath his camouflage T-shirt. Hunched on his seat, blading his fingernails with a pocketknife, he looks sly and sorcererlike: the barbarian sage, coiled for action. It comes as no surprise when a ravishing blond in a leopard-skin coat strolls into the studio and kisses him on the lips.
Nugent is exultant. “Is this one fine-ass wench of a wife or what?” he asks me and his radio audience. Shemane, who runs an aerobics studio when she isn’t teaching her Queen of the Forest self-defense workshop, smiles demurely. The 35-year-old former radio traffic girl is Nugent’s second wife and, as subscribers of Ted Nugent Adventure Outdoors magazine can attest, looks equally stunning posed in a black bikini or next to a just-killed warthog.
“Have you seen my daughter Sasha?” Nugent continues. “Talk about gorgeous. And my boy Toby ù 21 years old, six-three, 200 clean-living pounds of American boy. And this big guy. Come scwuggle with Dad, my little monkey.”
Backpack-toting, Vans-wearing, angelic-faced, seven-year old Rocco Winchester Nugent sidles up to the chair for a brief scwuggle. Then, as they do most days, dad and son recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and dad queries son about schoolwork and son responds in a clear, obedient voice. They stand there, the American family in happy domestic huddle, every word captured by the microphone and beamed at 50,000 watts over the blighted but hopeful postindustrial steppes of Motor City.
“I’ll pick up Rocco at school, then I’m going hunting,” Nugent says, still at the mike.
“Great.” says Shemane. “What do you want for dinner?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll just kill me a big buck.”
So dawns another day in Ted’s World, where sparest mundanity glows with simple truth: Family is good, country is good, and most of all, hunting is good. So good, in fact, that Nugent has embarked on a personal mission to return hunting to the honored position it once held in American society, back before urbanization, animal rights, Walt Disney, and the hordes of well-meaning Lycra-clad city slickers transformed the outdoors into a cheery theme park. Nugent’s goal is to inspire the nation’s 16 million hunters to rise up and throw off their shackles of political correctness, to loudly and proudly proclaim the Nugent creed that killing animals is not only natural, but necessary. Of course, crusades being what they are, anyone who opposes him is evil and must, as he will tell me, “get their heads ripped off, get crushed, get ground up until they shit blood.”
On the air, Nugent is busy relating his latest media coup. “So I’m on Politically Incorrect the other day and we’re posing for pictures and I put my arm around [Health and Human Services Secretary] Donna Shalala, who’s like three feet tall. So she puts her arm around my waist and ù whooooa ù she feels my Glock and her eyes go BOOM! There’s Secret Service guys all over the studio, checking the crowd, and I’m sitting up there hugging a member of the Cabinet, and I’m packing.” He gives his demented giggle. “You’ve got to love that.
“I dominated that show…the people are roaring, applauding, laughing,” he says. “You know what that applause is? It’s America saying, ‘Ted, we agree.’ You know what that laughter is? It’s America saying, ‘Ted, we’re comfortable with that joke. We’re comfortable with you.’ “
The show wraps up. We walk the hundred yards to his house, a large, well-kept two-story clapboard surrounded by a horse stable and kennels for Nugent’s three hunting dogs. We’re greeted by a charcoal-colored stray that the Nugents adopted a few months back and dubbed Snowy. She rubs languorously on Nugent’s shins, whiskers atwitch, antsy for her master’s touch.
“Yeah,” he says briskly. “We got a cat.”
Nugent starts to reach for her, then hesitates. He looks at the cat and at me, aware of the paradoxes that spring up when you construct a life of deciding who’s right, who’s wrong, and who dies.
“I should shoot you,” he whispers tenderly, rumpling Snowy’s fur. “I should put a bullet in your fuzzy little ass. I really should.”
The cat closes its eyes and purrs.
“See!” Nugent says. “She agrees with me.”
Early afternoon, and the green Suburban is whistling down county roads, rolling through stop signs, wheeling around matrons in Oldsmobiles who peer surprisedly over spectacles. The Nuge is running errands, and there’s no time to lose.
“Hey there, mama, out of the way. Big boy coming through.”
Nugent drives fast not just because he enjoys it, but because he has a lot to do. In the purposeful overload that is his life, there are dogs to tend, guns to test, targets to shoot, tree-stands to fix, videos to film, broadheads to sharpen, brush to pile, stalls to clean, and of course, animals to hunt. So Nugent has developed a system: mornings for radio, early afternoon for chores, and the rest of the day for hunting. Different vehicles for different assignments: the Suburban for runabouts, the 1966 Bronco shortbed for bird hunting, the two Corvette ZR-1s for speed runs, and the zebra-stripe Monster Gonzo Bronco with the four-barrel carb, cowl-mounted police lights, double side-window gun racks, and public-address speaker for occasions when he wishes to make more of an impression. Nugent is an avid devotee of Flaubert’s law: regular and orderly in life, savage and original in art. This is a man who straightens tea towels on oven doors, who wipes the drippy edge of ketchup bottles in restaurants, who won’t permit his son to leave the house without a handkerchief. “A cloth handkerchief,” he clarifies. “Folded.”
As we drive, he coolly lays out the arithmetical gospel of the pro-hunting case: the 18 million whitetails that make up the nation’s expanding deer population, the absence of natural predators, and the millions of dollars lost annually to habitat destruction. He brings up the 7,000 elk that starved to death in Yellowstone two winters ago and insists that hunting would have caused less pain and waste. He quotes studies that meat procured from the wild uses fewer resources than store-bought meat or even vegetables, when you factor in habitat loss and the pollution costs. Which leads him to the point that it’s considerably more eco-sensitive and efficient for him to shoot, gut, and cook his meat than to buy it in a grocery store ù which he hasn’t done, he says, since the Nixon administration. He acknowledges the similarities between his views and those of environmentalists, particularly when it comes to his hatred of mindless development and his obsessive desire for habitat protection.
All in all, it’s a surprisingly well practiced, cogent, and logical presentation, the kind of thoughtful argument that Nugent’s observers use to illustrate what they call the five-20 rule: Listen to him for five minutes, you’ll loathe him. Listen for 20, and he starts to make sense. It also happens to be the kind of argument that has inspired some hunters and environmentalists to engage in a careful rapprochement after decades of political warfare. In Montana, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is working with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to restore 11,000 acres north of Yellowstone. On a larger scale, 37 organizations (including such diverse groups as the Sierra Club and the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) have formed the Natural Resource Summit of America to, among other things, deter efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act. It’s a level of cooperation that harks back to the historic camping trip of hunter Theodore Roosevelt and greenie John Muir that resulted in the formation of our national park system. In other words, it’s good news that would seem to inspire Nugent toward some degree of optimism, or at least righteous vindication. But it doesn’t. The more he talks, the angrier he gets, frustrated with the 80 percent of society that makes up the nonhunting public. He fumes about the passage of ten of 13 hunter-restrictive state ballot initiatives in this decade, his fury increasing until, as it always does, it finds a flashpoint. He catches sight of the local paper folded on the seat ù the Jackson Citizen Patriot, for which Nugent writes an outdoors column.
“This guy wrote in last week,” Nugent says. “Complains about my ‘kill of the week’ stories. Said I gave hunters a bad name.”
He sucks a chestful of air; his face tightens. “First of all, I write my column every other week, not every week ù get your facts straight, you asswipe. Second, I don’t write about a hunt every time ù I’ll write entire columns about songbirds and trees and snow geese. Third, I wallow in the thrill of the hunt, the encounter, the chase, and the kill ù it’s all thrilling. But it’s not about killing. It’s about the value system that produces these thrilling experiences. That’s my message, that’s always been my message. Hey, buddy, does ‘fuck you’ ring any bells?”
Nugent accelerates past a tractor. “You know, that magazine you work for is pretty cute,” he says. “But how can they project this fantasy world of biking, hiking, and windsurfing and ignore the fundamental realities? You can’t. Your readers need the Nuge ù you can’t deny it. I’m a force in the outdoors, with or without your stamp of approval. The assholes don’t like me to say the things I do, and I love to piss assholes off. You know why?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Because it proves I’m not an asshole!”
There are those who would beg to differ. Nugent is despised by people from all reaches of the sporting community and beyond, including Wayne Pacelle, vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States (“He’s a lustful, rapacious killer, way out of the American mainstream”); by moderate hunting ethicists such as David Petersen, editor of an essay collection called A Hunter’s Heart (“He’s obnoxious, brash, and a bully. He embodies and magnifies aspects of hunting that the general public detests”); by old-line hunters such as Glenn St. Charles, founder of the esteemed Pope & Young bowhunting club (“He’s a loose cannon, covering the trails with washtubs of blood”); and by at least one of his Michigan neighbors (“He’s a horse’s ass, if you ask me”). Some just sputter when they hear his name. “Ohhh, my God,” says Chris Anderlik, a Michigan animal-rights activist. “Killer…asshole…monster.”
Others, however, acknowledge Nugent’s potential as a bridge from the traditionally insular hunting community, particularly given his ability to use the media. “He could be a powerful voice, not just for hunting, but for the environmental movement, if he could just control his venting,” says Ted Kerasote, hunting ethicist and author of Bloodties and Heart of Home. “Maybe he needs a handler.”
“Nugent is doing some constructive and clever things,” says Mary Zeiss Stange, author of Woman the Hunter, a scholarly take on the cultural history of hunting. “He’s a good showman and he really cares. I just hope he realizes that he doesn’t do himself or anybody else any favors with that whack ’em and stack ’em stuff. It doesn’t square with the good he does ù or the good he could do if he tempered his style a little.”
Such a proposition is more complex than it may appear, because to spend time with Nugent is to realize that, at the deepest level, he is his style. Nugent’s blood-lust rocker persona ranks as his singular creation, born of hard circumstance and honed over the decades into an impermeable carapace of ego and belief. Few celebrity personas, mainstream or obscure, have evolved so completely; few have been willing to dismiss any notion of a hidden interior life, to declare, as Nugent does, that the fiction is real ù that the act is no act. To some, his strategy creates a figure of clownish bluster and infantile aggression; to others, a gutsy firebrand who puts his money where his mouth is. But there can be no doubting the strategy’s price: He must, at all costs, stay in character.
“Wait a second,” he says as we pull up to a stop sign. The automatic window whirs down. Closing his eyes, he elaborately sniffs the air.
“I smell a buck,” he says.
He checks my face and sees doubt. “I’m not kidding! I can smell them from hundreds of yards off ù big, beastadon bucks in rut, getting all smelly and horny.” He scans the woods and gives a slow, conspiratorial nod. “He’s in there, I guarantee it.”
Later I ask if, as he has written, he really shot a robin at 100 yards with a slingshot. “Nailed him,” he says. “Centerpunched.”
I ask again. The length of a football field? With a normal slingshot? Nugent stares me down.
“In flight,” he says.
This is Nugent’s game; he is constantly challenging you to believe him, and when he’s questioned, he won’t back down. Which is why he finds it tricky to adapt to a world that sometimes accepts his views and trickier still to make the changes he must make to transcend the status of fringe curiosity and become the national statesman he wants to be. So he adapts in tiny, fitful steps ù forging what amounts to a stealth campaign of embracing new philosophies, reacting to criticism, updating his message, and never, ever admitting to it. Nugent, by his rules, must always be Nugent.
“I think I might be the most intense human being who ever lived,” he says. When asked to name someone who comes close, he thinks awhile and settles on Muhammad Ali. “Pretty intense,” Nugent allows. “Of course, he didn’t go as long as I have.”
Nugent got his first guitar in 1956, when he was seven. He didn’t want to play guitar any more than his older brother Jeff wanted to play trumpet or his younger brother John wanted to play drums. But he got one, and he practiced because that was the rule. There were many rules in the Nugent household: military-spec haircuts, for one. If a Coke was opened, half of it was to be poured into a juice glass and placed in the refrigerator for later. Toilet paper was to be used four sheets at a time. At the dinner table, food was arranged on the plate and eaten sequentially ù beans, meat, potatoes, salad ù and passed clockwise, and if it wasn’t, Warren Nugent had his steel-and-leather riding crop to make sure the miscreant noticed. Warren was a military man, a drill sergeant in Ike’s army until he came back to a job as a regional rep for a steel company in Detroit. He drank, and he gave his three sons and daughter what was then referred to as a “physical upbringing.” They were to be successful, or else.
“Dad could tell me to do something, and I’d just not do it,” says first-born Jeff, now president of Neutrogena. “But Ted always felt the need to rebel. He had to make a big deal out of it. He had a creative side, and he hated being penned in.”
Ted played his guitar, and Ted got out. At 14, he was winning band contests by leaping onto the judges’ table and soloing from his knees. Soon after, he was sneaking out of the house to open for the Supremes. A year after high school graduation, he was gliding back into his old neighborhood in a Cadillac limo with the number-two song in the nation, “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” which he cowrote for his band, the Amboy Dukes. By the early seventies he was carving out a niche as rock and roll’s primitive wild man. Swinging on a rope, wearing a rabbit-skin loincloth (“with no bottom panel, so the women could enjoy me”), Nugent created a figure that exceeded parody’s grasp. He shot flaming arrows, shattered glass with guitar feedback, rappelled from catwalks, leaped from 16-foot amplifiers, and perhaps most impressive, remained as sober as a churchman. Nugent famously turned down acid from Hendrix (providing grist for his oft-repeated couplet: “Jimi did drugs and Jimi’s dead. I went hunting, and I’m still Ted”), eschewed alcohol, and indulged only in vices of a more natural variety. At morning wake-up knocks, roadies would stand in awe as the girls filed out of Nugent’s hotel room ù one… two…three…four…five. “I am totally a product of my own desires,” he declared in 1977. “I am the nucleus. I have life dicked.”
For a brief time, Nugent seemed correct. Three consecutive albums went double-platinum with such riffs as “Cat Scratch Fever” and “If You Can’t Lick ‘Em, Lick ‘Em”; from 1977 to 1979 Nugent was the largest-grossing tour act in the world. He headlined in front of 500,000 at Cal Jam and wielded his pistols on the cover of Rolling Stone. The bicoastal rock establishment, however, never accepted him as much more than a regional act, and Nugent ignored them, living in his two-bedroom, one-bath Michigan farmhouse, disregarding their advice to update his music and image. “I thrived in the rock industry,” he says, “in spite of the industry.”
When the albums stopped selling widely in the eighties, Nugent maintained a core following in the Midwest among a fiercely devoted male, blue-collar crowd. He played 200 shows a year in small arenas and sold a trickle of albums both here and abroad (he’s quite popular in Japan). He dabbled in other media, guesting as a drug dealer on Miami Vice, explaining guitar feedback to wide-eyed kids on Newton’s Apple. Spurred by his loyal following, his concerts and music became increasingly hunting-oriented, and when hunting came under attack in the late eighties, Nugent started fighting back ù at first with onstage rants, then in more organized ways. As a tribute to late friend and legendary Michigan hunter Fred Bear, Nugent founded Ted Nugent World Bowhunters in 1988. “Propelled by the high visibility power of my Rock n’ Roll career,” he wrote, “I will take the truth high, far, and wide.”
It didn’t take long for the mainstream to notice. Specifically, it took Down to Earth, a 1988 assemblage of Nugent’s private video footage that friends had encouraged him to release. “This ain’t no Disneyland,” Nugent warns at the outset and proceeds to arrow nine wild pigs, a Spanish goat, a turkey, a squirrel, and an armadillo, at one point showing the entire montage in slow motion, laughing his demented laugh and doing his “gutpile boogie.” The tape was circulated widely through hunting stores and mail-order catalogs, igniting hue and cry among hunters and animal-rights activists alike, who objected to, among other things, the excessive celebration of death. Nugent found himself vilified, ridiculed, and accused of ruining the pastime he professed to love. Stung, he responded the only way he knew how: by switching into what he calls Defiant Mode and launching a Pattonesque all-fronts attack. He released CDs of hunting music (including such songs as “I Just Wanna Go Huntin'” and “Fred Bear: The American Hunter’s Anthem”), filmed the Ted Nugent Spirit of the Wild television series (featuring illustrative arrow-entry points and how-to gutting tips and bringing in $3 million as a PBS fund-raiser in hunter-heavy areas), wrote a book called Blood Trails, a detailed accounting of 120 Nuge kills (“The Zwickey 2 Blade had penetrated the entire skull, slicing the brain, and severing a big vein. YUM YUM!!”), spoke at governor’s conferences, and opened his bowhunting megastore-museum in Jackson, outfitting it with all the trappings of a vibrant Nugent hunting culture, including used, autographed Whackmaster arrows ($19.95), the I Kill It, I Grill It apron ($16.95), the Baby Camo Diaper Set ($19.95), Christmas stockings in the signature Nugent zebra stripe ($14.95), and 17 styles of Nugent baseball caps. Such aggressive marketing, combined with his group’s lack of not-for-profit status, gave rise to rumors of profiteering, which Nugent dismisses by citing a $3 million loss on the store alone. “When he gets down to his last $10 million,” Jeff Nugent says, “then he’ll get worried.”
More surprisingly, he gradually showed an ability to adapt. In a 1991 “Teditorial” in his Adventure Outdoors magazine, he encouraged his followers never to make fun or light of the killing of an animal, and he apologized for making those mistakes in Down to Earth. He has increasingly imbued his message with American Indian ritual, to the point of being inducted as a blood brother of the Lakota tribe. He retrofitted his speaking strategy to a two-pronged attack, as he puts it, “hitting them with the wild Motor City madman side, then hitting them with the spiritual side.” Last year, to broaden appeal, he changed the name of the organization to Ted Nugent United Sportsmen of America. In his home, near the black-and-white vanity, are stacked copies of The Road Less Traveled and Beyond and Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.
“Ted has toned it down some, in order to persevere,” says Lee Fields, TNUSA’s Florida director. “In certain contexts, he avoids words like blood, guts, kill. But he will politely remind people that their daily actions involve the death of animals, that a leather jacket is a fur coat with a haircut.”
Politically, TNUSA’s actions tend toward a rootsy catchall: letter-writing campaigns, game-meat giveaways to shelters, highway cleanups, kids’ camps, tree plantings, and the like. There are only a handful of employees and little infrastructure, no national meetings other than the info-sessions before concerts, no political strategy other than the defense of hunting at all costs ù which often puts it at odds with the more moderate hunting community over issues such as using bait to attract bears and hunting mountain lions. While Nugent muffled some criticism by selling his interest in a Michigan mink ranch, he continues to operate Sunrize Acres, his fenced-in 340-acre hunting ranch outside Jackson, where he can personally guide you to a trophy bison bull ($5,000), Russian boar, or whitetail deer ($1,000 each) and where he holds his annual Rape ‘O the Hills hunting jamboree. But he offers only a token defense when faced with the criticism of hunting ranches ù lack of fair chase, the questionable ethics of purchasing a trophy animal. “I understand the criticism,” he says. “But there is a recreational value to hunting, and to deny that would be stupid.”
As we near the turnoff for his home, he stops the car with a screech. Forty yards off the road, a magnificent eight-point buck stands in a shoulder-high field of goldenrod. Nugent points his trigger finger at him.
“Aaahhh. Is that fucking gorgeous or what? He’s 200 pounds at least, maybe three and a half years old. I mean, this is what it’s all about.”
The buck stares blankly at the car, twitching its ears.
“If I was in Defiant Mode, I’d do him for sure, right here, right now, with the handgun,” Nugent says. “Then you’d write about it, and they’d all have a riot with me, they’d say, ‘He has no respect for animals.'”
He watches the buck for a while and then slides the gearshift into drive. “Defiant Mode is fun, but it’s a lot of work.”
It’s late afternoon and windy when we return; a storm front is rolling in from the west. Nugent kicks off his shoes, unlocks the back door, and walks into his 5,000-square-foot custom-designed home, the sanctum sanctorum of Ted’s World. Spread before us, the space is dark and cavernous. Kitchen, dining, and living rooms form one flowing unit; upstairs bedrooms are set along a balcony overlooking it all. When he built it seven years ago, Nugent kept interior walls to a minimum, freeing up sight lines so the family could enjoy the feeling of being together. Right now, though, there’s nobody to see. Rocco is at a friend’s; Shemane is teaching another class. Sasha and Toby have their own place, and his older daughter, Starr, lives a couple hours’ drive away in Berkley. It’s just Nugent and faithful Snowy, now pawing happily at his woolen socks.
Tedquarters, as it’s known, looks as one might expect it to. The dining room wall is studded with heads and hides of bears, moose, oryx, caribou, whitetails, warthogs, and lions, to name a few, and the zebra-stripe motif finds its way onto dining-room chairs, carpet, and a tea set. But overall, it’s quite modest and homey, with a few surprising touches: Well-leafed issues of Harper’s and Martha Stewart Living adorn the coffee table; a portly ceramic cow stands guard in the bay window.
“Another bachelor night,” Nugent says, poking impatiently around the fridge. “It’s not like the studio is that busy. I’ve told Shemane she ought to quit that and spend more time at home. Of course, she’s saying the same thing to me, asking me why do I put up with all this shit? Why don’t I go out and just do what I want to do ù -hunt, travel, have fun?” He shrugs his shoulders wearily. “Have fun? I am having fun. This is fun.” He sits down in a zebra-stripe chair. He dials up Shemane and asks about dinner, reminding her to pick up more ginger ale. He checks his Dayminder and makes some phone calls; his manager says that Michael Moore of TV Nation wants him to come on the show and hand out automatic weapons to the crowd. Nugent says thanks, but no. He rants a short time about liberals like Moore and then stops, his anger thin and unsustainable. He rubs his eyes tiredly. The animal heads look down on him, lamplight pooling in their glass eyes. Snowflakes tick against the windowpanes and begin to pile. It’s tranquil, the first quiet moment of the day. Sensing the mood change, Nugent is compelled to explain.
“Yeah, I’m still living the dream,” he says. “It seems to be effortless, but as you can see, it’s not. It’s definitely not.”
The phone rings. It’s Earl, the manager at Sunrize Acres. There’s a buck down outside the ranch, just beyond the eastern fence. Nugent grips the phone tighter.
“Wounded?” he wants to know. “Car? Bullet? Arrow?”
Earl doesn’t know. The deer walked around all night, acting funny. Then it just lay down. Earl drove right up to it, and it didn’t move. It looks like it’s going to die, he says.
Nugent springs to his feet, energized. This is what he lives for: a complication to be simplified, disorder to be repaired. Moreover, he’s excited to have an audience. “Come on,” he says. “Your readers need to see this.”
It’s snowing hard by the time we reach Sunrize. We pick up Earl, who directs us to the deer, still lying in a field of alfalfa, its head raised. We bump slowly across the furrows and approach the animal from the back, pulling up a scant ten feet away.
The automatic window lowers. The deer’s delicate ears swivel like radar dishes, but its head doesn’t turn. Nugent looks for a moment, then unholsters the Glock.
“You’re a pretty buck, all right,” he says as he sights in. There’s a short, metallic thunderclap, and the .40-caliber softpoint enters the deer’s brain. The deer lurches; then its head droops and falls gently to the snow.
Nugent steps out of the car and walks over. “Your dancing days are over, pal,” he says, poking the eye with a sprig of alfalfa to make sure.
Stretched out in the snow, the body steams faintly. Its coat is rich gold, its belly streaked in white, its eye pearlescent black. Earl puts his hand over the heart. “Still pumping,” he says. “Doesn’t know he’s dead.”
Nugent and Earl place their hands on the body, searching for signs of injury or disease. They find none. They grip its antlers, guess its weight, pat its ribs, check its hooves, and wonder why it lay down and gave up. Nugent probes the skull for the bullet hole and lifts an index finger painted bright red.
After all the rhetoric and politics, this is what it comes down to: two men standing quietly around a body in a lonesome field, everything slowly being covered in snow. This is what Nugent wants you to see: a logical, humane, perfect kill, an example of man’s conscious and caring participation in the natural cycle.
“I got to do what I got to do,” he says, rubbing the blood on his thumb and feeling its wetness. “It’s going to freeze, starve to death, get eaten by dogs. This is the only thing to do. It’s our responsibility.”
Yet there’s still something hard about it, something that bids Nugent to spend time looking at the deer, touching it, talking about it, something that is either genuine emotion or a calculated attempt to simulate it ù for him, perhaps, the two have become the same thing. All we can say is this: The deer was alive; now it is not. Animal ù the word is derived from the Latin word for “soul” ù has again been transformed into meat. Nugent wants to show us that death is good, but in the end he can only show us that death is.