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SECTION ONE: THE GREAT TWITCH
Jack leaves California with a new confidence, acquired by his sense of having discovered a secret knowledge. He doesn't really understand this knowledge until he picks up an old hitchhiker in New Mexico. Jack becomes fascinated by a twitch on the old man's leathery cheek. The hitchhiker is not even aware of his twitch. Yet, the twitch seems to reveal all there is about the desperate conditions of the man's life. Suddenly, Jack feels that he has unraveled one of life's well-kept secrets: Life holds no more meaning than does the twitch on the old man's face. Jack experiences a feeling of liberation. He is at peace with the Great Twitch.
Some readers view the theory of the Great Twitch as a literary version of the psychological theory of behaviorism. Behaviorism is the theory that human actions can be explained in terms of how people respond to external, observable influences. As such, people are considered to be no more than complicated mechanisms. Their actions are caused by external forces, over which they have no control.
They may believe that they can choose to do this or that. But the notion of having a choice, along with the notion of having a mind, is a delusion. There is no such thing as free will. Therefore, no one is ever responsible for anything. One's actions are no more meaningful than the twitch caused by an electric current passing through the leg of a dead frog.
As long as Jack believes in the Great Twitch, he can deny responsibility for Anne's corruption or for anything else. He is absolved of guilt. His intense disillusionment vanishes. Now he can go on with his life, protected by his secret knowledge. Thus, the second phase in Jack's growth toward self-knowledge is his change from "brassbound" idealist to unreflective behaviorist. By rejecting idealism he is no longer denying the reality of the physical world, and so is no longer escaping into his own ideas about the world. Rather, he is now escaping from responsibility by believing that life is basically meaningless and does not operate according to moral principles but according to physical laws-and nothing more.
With his secret knowledge, Jack returns to the capital. He feels smug, yet cut off from others. After all, such a secret as his is not something you can simply whisper to another person. You are stuck with it, alone.
For the most part, Jack keeps to himself. One day, however, he visits Adam, who is busy with the new medical center project. But he seems to Jack to be more withdrawn than usual. Nevertheless, Adam talks at length about an operation he is going to perform, a prefrontal lobectomy on a schizophrenic patient. This operation, Adam explains, involves removing a piece of the brain in an attempt to turn someone who is depressed into a cheerful, friendly person. Jack is immensely curious about the possibility of changing someone's personality and moral values through an operation. He requests and receives permission to watch the procedures. It seems that this scientific manipulation confirms Jack's notion of the Great Twitch. Indeed, even human values can be changed with the flick of a scalpel.
Jack doesn't see Adam for a while. Then he learns that Hubert Coffee, one of Gummy Larson's men, has tried to bribe Adam to award the medical contract to Larson. Anne was visiting Adam the night it happened. She tells Jack that Adam hit Coffee, then wrote his resignation to the Boss.
Jack's plan is to convince Willie to arrest Coffee for attempting to bribe an official. This will prove that the governor had nothing to do with the bribe. Of course, Adam will have to swear to the charges. But to make the charges stick, Anne will probably have to testify also. Anne quickly agrees. Then Jack changes his mind, worried that a smart lawyer will discover that Anne is the Boss's mistress. Anne says she doesn't care.
Suddenly, Jack is overcome by a feeling of betrayal. He grows angry. He tells Anne that she is forgetting about Adam's feelings. Then, without thinking, he asks why she became Willie's mistress.
Anne says she loves Willie. After she found out about her father's part in the judge's bribe, she didn't see any reason not to have an affair with him. Besides, Willie wants to marry her, but not now. He can't get a divorce until after he runs for the U.S. Senate.
The Senate business is news to Jack. But that is not what he thinks about as he walks home. He returns to the idea that perhaps he is to blame for what Anne did. But he only told her the truth about her father. Could he be blamed for doing so? He turns the question over and over in his mind.
The Boss readily agrees to swear out a warrant on Coffee. Now, Jack has a twofold task: He has to show Adam that, by swearing out a warrant, the Boss is being true to his word to keep politics out of the hospital deal, and he has to convince Adam not to bring the matter to court. Succeeding, he leaves Adam's apartment with the torn pieces of the letter of resignation in his pocket.
Jack has protected Anne's honor. He thinks everyone is keeping the affair a secret. Probably Sugar-Boy knows, but he is absolutely loyal to the Boss. And Sadie will not tell. She is biding her time, waiting for the affair to blow over.
All seems to be going smoothly that summer. Then, Tom Stark is threatened with a paternity suit by Marvin Frey and his daughter. He admits that he may be the baby's father, but maintains that he was only one of many who might have fathered the child. At first it seems a simple matter to solve, but it turns out that Frey and MacMurfee are working together to cause Willie a public scandal. MacMurfee wants to run for the Senate. So does the Boss. A scandal is one way to lessen the Boss's chances. But as Willie sees it, the case against Tom must not be solid or the suit would already have been in court. So, the Boss has some time to draw up his plans.
Meanwhile, Lucy Stark feels that something is going on, but doesn't know exactly what. Jack drives out to her farm and tells her about the paternity suit. He explains that the baby may not be Tom's, that MacMurfee is trying to cause a scandal. Lucy is disgusted by the idea that politics could play a part in the possibility of her being a grandmother. And she is saddened, too. She doesn't understand why her love for Tom and Willie, and their love for her, hasn't been enough.
In this section, you see Jack become emotionally more involved in the lives of others. When he is in the operating-room pit observing Adam perform a lobectomy, he seems to be in the dark depths of meaninglessness, which he calls the Great Twitch. But gradually he pulls himself back into the light of human involvement. He helps Anne make certain that Adam remains hospital director. In doing so, he is careful to protect Anne's honor. And he never once questions whether he should visit Lucy. He goes to her, he says, not because he feels he owes her anything but because he cares about her.