At the very end we came upon him – others had seen him from time to time, and reported that he was still out there – and he was bigger even than we had expected. We knew him to be great, but we found him to be gargantuan. The eyes were tiny hidden holes pressed apart in that massive fleshy head. A wide wrinkled brow lifted to our gaze, from which the glistening spray fled in sheets. The white stage-skin (of fifty suits he had outgrown all but two) encrusted with jewels like barnacles, trailing seaweedy tassels and fronds, humped and bellied out with blubber. The audience rose and fell back in coruscating waves all around, we descried him wallowing and blowing in front of us in the dazzling light, and we had never seen anything so immense and monstrous. We had not journeyed all this way to see a mere person, certainly, but it was a shock, nevertheless, to know that finally we were in the presence of a great white whale, that it was indeed Moby Dick.

Everyone had their ideas of what he meant – to them and to us all. For some he had been the Devil: his rhythms, his hell-raising rebellion, but mostly the sex, simple Sex! in those gyrating hips – not only un- but anti-Christian. For others he was a god who took away their doubts, who watched over them above the bedhead, who required (so they felt) the supplications of hysteria or of quiet private devotion: a fair, innocuous god, then, who left his followers to make the demands. Moby Dick was something for everyone, all things to everyone, democratically capacious. He let us choose, as everything about him, when we considered where he had started out, said ‘I chose.’ He was as big as all of us put together, swallowing us all: America. Immortal, in any light; something that was always going to be there. Everyone we met on the chase agreed about that.

But above all, a whale. He had lived down in darkness, his windows covered with tinfoil, rarely came up into daylight. The air-conditioning, turned to full, purled ceaselessly: it was always cold down there. Not a land animal at all – he weltered in bed all day and oozed along on an electric cart. More than 5,000 pills in the last seven months alone – uppers, downers, sleeping pills, waking-up pills, slimming pills, painkilling pills, every new brand: he sucked them in like plankton. Even that was not enough, for in the final stages Moby Dick let them go after him with the harpoon. He was thrashing and plunging when he needed to be calm – the syringe in the hide brought him down; he was slumbering away from it all when he was supposed to be up – another dart roused and revved him.

The Discovery of Mexico