By Mark Hamstra
It is an unfortunate irony that the very social and cultural wasteland compelling writers like John Hawkes to write disturbing and difficult novels also robs them of a general audience with the time and patience to read, puzzle, and understand them. Hawkes died in 1998, the same year as William Gaddis, a contemporary who also wrote complex, labyrinthine novels. Both writers were frequent targets for hostile criticism, often accused of writing "strange" books which pursued originality to the point of obscurity. (Though it might be useful to note that strangeness and originality, according to Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, are the two elements that secure the future readership of a writer's work.)
Hawkes' books attempt to portray the dark cisterns beneath everyday reality. His work challenges readers to wade into the black waters of the violent, the comic, and the sexual; to sift through elements embedded in the past, with the ghosts of regret death existing side by side with hope for the future. Although these themes may be universal, what makes Hawkes remarkable is the presentation of these motifs and his ostensibly paradoxical technique: his prose is feverish yet stylized, his novels are seemingly chaotic yet structured, and even his characters delicately dance between reality and metaphor. He also experiments with time and space, both in his narrative technique as well as in the consciousness of his very characters. Indeed, this relationship is very important, as the structure of his novels often reflect the confusing, associative, unconscious journeys of his characters. The characters yearn for and attempt to construct meaning for themselves in world suffused with the absurd and the strange. They find their pasts in the present, a presence which haunts not only them, but the very settings and landscapes of the novel itself, infusing their world with guilt and regret, death and loss. Many of the eccentric characters in Hawkes' novels reflect his belief "in the sack of the past slung around our necks, in all the recurrent ancestral fears and abortive births we find in dreams as well as in literature."
These landscapes parallel and foil the characters struggling within them. Both Hawkes and Gaddis traveled extensively and used their experience in their books. Thus, Hawkes' brief spell as an ambulance driver in Germany during the last days of the Second World War becomes the setting of his first novel The Cannibal. The Caribbean, France, and Alaska also figure centrally in the novels The Second Skin, The Blood Oranges, and Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade, respectively. These travels would often occur between the school year at first Harvard, and later Brown University where he taught English and Creative Writing. (Finally Hawkes retired from teaching and moved to Connecticut ,where he devoted his time to gardening and writing.)
John Hawkes' first novel, The Cannibal, was published in 1949 when he was twenty-three years old. The central narrative takes place in post-World War Two Germany, but the narrative alternates between 1945 to 1914, superficially linked by the personal history of the protagonist, Madame Snow. Beneath this link lies the history of Germany itself, symbolized partly through pompous and insane characters such as Zizendorf, the novel's other principal character. The small town's insane asylum also becomes a historical symbol for Germany and the madness of war in general.
The novel starts in 1945, when Zizendorf decides to free Germany from its "foreign" invaders, namely the American occupation. Fanatical and extreme, he thinks he will accomplish this by killing Leevey, an American overseer who drives his motorcycle around his assigned territory, looking for civil unrest. If the madness and chaos of 1945 is an "after" picture, then the section in 1914 is a "before" picture revealing the imperialistic ambition, the bloodlust for honor, and the illusory dreams of glory. In the lyrical prose that characterizes the whole work, Hawkes finally brings together the dreams of 1914 and the ruins of 1945. The assassination is attempted, and the inmates at the asylum rebel. The horror of the novel's title emerges as an enigmatic capstone, described aptly in bestial terms.
The Beetle Leg, Hawkes' second novel, is set in the American West at the site of a dam that was built and then filled in with dirt. During its construction, Mulge Lampson has an accident and becomes buried beneath the dam. His brother Luke lives with Mulge's wife near the dam and the town of Mistletoe. She continues to mourn her husband. The arrival of the third brother, Cap Leech, the terror evoked by a marauding motorcycle gang called the Red Devils, and a child struck and poisoned by a snake on the side of the road near the dam all drive the fragmented structure.
The wasted landscape, entombed heroes, water myths, devils and snakes create what Frederick Busch calls "a nightmare" (47). His book, HAWKES: A Guide to His Fictions, is a useful escort through Hawkes' labyrinthine work, with each chapter providing a close reading of Hawkes' first eight works. The book was published in 1973, and though it only looks at Hawkes' early work, its depth and focus make it a very good companion. A more modern guide to Hawkes' oeuvre can be found in Rita Ferrari's Innocence, Power, and the Novels of John Hawkes, published in 1996.
With the novel Second Skin, Hawkes shifts from the darkly Gothic to a more comic and absurd treatment of the world. The protagonist of Second Skin, Skipper, is a fifty-nine year old ex-Navy officer who now artificially inseminates cows; the suicides of both Skipper's father and daughter haunt him throughout the narrative as he searches unconsciously for a way of dealing with the futility and apparent meaninglessness of life. The novel's tone and surreal plot is reminiscent of playwrights of the absurd like Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter.
The Blood Oranges, which was recently made into a feature film, retains some of the themes explored in the first novels -- the past's effect on the present, alienation, death, redemption, the absurd nature of reality, the importance of imagination -- but also explores themes of sexuality, relationships, and marriage. These themes pervade many of the novels to follow, including The Passion Artist and Virginie, Her Two Lives.
Although his novels grew increasingly less convoluted and complex, John Hawkes continued to play with the concepts of the past, memory, and time. He even wrote a few "fictional autobiographies," including his own in Adventures in The Alaskan Skin Trade. All of his novels reveal an author in love with language and the possibilities of narrative.
--Mark Hamstra, 12 October 1999
More on John Hawkes
You may order Hawkes' works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's John Hawkes Bookstore.
The Hawkes Scrapbook is a simple but useful Hawkes homepage, maintained by the author's brother-in-law.
The All-Movie Guide has some information on the Blood Oranges film. You can also read what the Internet Movie Database has to say about Blood Oranges as well.
Nerve magazine ran this short piece by Hawkes.
Christopher Makosa has authored a paper entitled "The Passion Artist by John Hawkes: A Study of Structure and Themes."
Google.com Search -- This will search news groups related to Hawkes.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Hawkes.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Hawkes and his work
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2 June 2003