John Hawkes Goes West
For his second novel, The Beetle Leg (New Directions, 1951), John Hawkes took the restless, chaotic energy from the war-torn Germany of The Cannibal and transferred it to the American West. In his early years, he seems to have needed a “lawless country” in order to let his novel run free from the constraints of “plot, character, setting, and theme,” which he once labelled as the “true enemies of the novel.” And The Beetle Leg surely demonstrates his early commitment to this premise. The novel has no plot, although there are several elements that give the frustrating appearance of plot points. There are a handful of characters—a Sheriff (of course), a Mandan Native American, a bad ass gang of motor cyclists called the Red Devils, and a few others—but none of them really have any defining characteristics.
But what The Beetle Leg does have in spades, however, is setting. In one sense, the Western landscape might be the central character in the book. A dam collapsed years ago, killing a man and leaving him buried in a “sarcophagus of mud.” And it is the hill and the body that remains afterward around which most of the novel is built. “The mile long knoll of his grave mound was an incomplete mountain, a pile of new earth erupted between the bluffs, a patch, a lighter hue of brown, across the river road.”
There is no logic to anything that happens in The Beetle Leg. There are no consequences for any event or any decision. This is a universe made only for the tangled beauty of Hawkes’s prose.
They were waiting for him there. Each strap in place, not a buckle rattled. The Red Devils sat their machines quietly and their gloved hands waited over switches, ready to twist the handle grips for speed. They sat straight, tilted slightly forward, faces hidden by drawn goggles and fastened helmets, the front wheels in an even row all leaning to the left as tight polished boots raised, rested lightly on the starting pedals. The straight, grounded left legs were parallel in black flaring britches and from the several creatures sitting double, with arms locked patiently around wood hard belts, there was never a murmur. Not a foot slipped nor did the saddle springs creak. Between the empty corral and the woman’s kitchen the motorcycles filled the darkness, the first almost touching the logs and the last within arm’s length of the cardboard wall. The black, deep-grooved tires were clean and hard. It was as if they had made no flying circuits that evening nor left rubber burns and cuts in the sand where few humans gather, in the gullies of rattlesnakes or before the coils of braided whips. Their saddlebags were still unopened, they had not slept. They watched as hunters by a pond in the marsh from which a single old bird, flapping and beating across the flat water, is unable to rise. License plates had been stripped from the mudguards.
All the while the hill of mud is being monitored by a seismograph, which registers that it is slowly “pushing southward on a calendar of branding, brushfires and centuries to come, toward the gulf. . . . a beetle’s leg each several anniversaries.”
For what it is worth, I’ve also just finished Hawke’s 1974 novel Death, Sleep & The Traveler. (Hawkes was obviously brilliant at book titles.) But Death, Sleep & The Traveler was a bit too Swinging Sixties for me. Playboys, cigars, lots of wine, and, um, schnaps? Allert, the Dutch narrator, his wife, and a psychiatrist have had a longstanding sexual triangle which has just broken up, so the husband takes an ocean cruise and becomes involved in another triangle with a sailor and a female passenger. “Allert’s theory is that the ordinary man becomes an artist only in sex. In which case pornography is the true field of the ordinary man’s imagination,” his wife proclaims.