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Posts from the ‘John Hawkes’ Category

John Hawkes Goes West

hawkes beetle

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.”

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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.

Sigh.

hawkes death

The House That Jack Built: John Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Hawkes Cannibal

When I was young and the traveling fair came around every spring, they sometimes brought with them a funhouse called The House That Jack Built, meant to suggest a structure built by a crazed architect. Inside was a mildly scary maze that consisted of floors that were uneven or that would suddenly go soft on you, mirrors and optical illusions, horrible noises, paths with misdirections and dead ends, and other tactics meant to make the space the size of a mobile home feel as spacious as a mansion.

I was reminded of that as I read John Hawkes’s first novel The Cannibal (New Directions, 1949). The book begins and ends in 1945, during the final days of World War II, diverting with a middle section that takes us back to 1914 and the onset of the previous World War. In 1945, the Americans are sweeping across Germany in the final days of the war. We are in a bombed-out town called Spitzen-on-the Dein, a landscape of buildings that are tilting or half falling down, the streets littered with abandoned carts and bomb craters. The opening scene is the empty insane asylum, which sits on a hill surrounded by charred earth, fields with dead cows, and stunted trees. The omniscient narrator, Herr Zizendorf, is the Editor of the wonderfully named local paper, the Crooked Zeitung. Zizendorf is a reluctant narrator who doesn’t bother to announce his presence or use the pronoun “I” until page 32. He prefers to stay in the background most of the time, until the end of the book when he reveals that he is the ringleader of the final event.

We are slowly introduced to an odd cast of characters: Madame Stella Snow, Jutta, the Census-Taker, The Duke (a tank commander in the previous World War), Herr Stintz, a tuba-playing school teacher, and a handful of others. Relationships and chronology are often ambiguous. But the writing is lush, thrilling.

The Mayor, with his faded red sash, was too blind to tend to the chronicles of history, and went hungry like the rest with memory obliterated from his doorstep. Their powerful horses of boney Belgian stock, dull-eyed monsters of old force, had been commandeered from the acre farms for ammunition trucks, and all were gone but one grey beast who cropped up and down the stone streets, unowned, nuzzling the gutters. He frightened the Mayor on black nights and trampled, unshod, in the bar garden, growing thinner each day. Children took rides on the horse’s tail and roamed in small bands, wearing pasteboard Teutonic helmets, over the small confines of the town. The undertaker had no more fluid for his corpses; the town nurse grew old and fat on no food at all. By mistake, some drank from poisoned wells.

This is writing I would follow anywhere.

In the 1914 section, which is more overtly allegorical, Hawkes takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany. If the book has a main character it is Madame Stella Snow, the only person who is in both sections. In some ways she emblematizes Germany in the novel. In this middle section we learn how she met her husband, Ernie, or Ernst. In 1914, she is a singer at the Sportswelt Brauhaus, a Bavarian bar patronized by German military officers and Nordic women, where two men fight for her heart: Cromwell, a Brit who might or might not be a German spy, and to the bar owner’s son, Ernie, a man overly fond of dueling and whose left hand has but three fingers that closely resemble claws.

At first, Cromwell seems to have won and he rides off in a carriage with Stella towards his residence, when Ernst unexpectedly gives chase and tries to stop the carriage. Without skipping a beat, this scene of a love triangle becomes conflated with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Cromwell was a fool. He wouldn’t move, but back straight, hat over his eyes, he sat and waited. His gloved hands trembled on his knees. “I’ll come back,” Ernst said and once more took to his heels as the carriage reached the curb and a crowd seemed to gather. Franz Ferdinand lay on the seat of the carriage, his light shirt filled with blood, his epaulettes askew and on the floor lay the body of his departed wife, while the assassin, Gavrilo Princip ran mad through the encircling streets.

After Ernie finally wins the hand of Stella, the couple make their way by mountain climbing (!) through “a great ring of chopped ice” high into the mountains to a hotel filled with “healthy guests, the men giants, the women tanned with snow, even the old venerable and strong because they were not too old.” In this anti-Berghof of good health, Ernie has “lost the meaning of sacrifice, siege, espionage, death, social democracy or militant monarchism.” He has lost the taste for war, until, strangely, Cromwell appears on the scene to chastise Ernie and Stella for hiding out from the war which has just begun, and before long the couple return to their village.

I won’t outline the rest of Hawkes’s plot, which can make it sound more cartoonish than it really is when condensed like this. I’ll just skip right to the ending in 1945, when Zizendorf and a couple of his compatriots scheme to kill the American who oversees their sector of Germany when he next rides his motorcycle down the highway. Once he is dead they believe they can lead an uprising that will free Germany from its new conquerors, launching “the birth of a Nation” once again. And, as the book ends, the lone motorcyclist is murdered and we watch a handful of locals gather to re-populate the insane asylum, ready to build a new regime under Zizendorf’s leadership.

In this, his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of his wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. Yet the novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. Hawkes has famously said “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme.“ This is one of those throwing-down-the-gantlet statements that writers and artists love to make, but what does it mean in practice? In The Cannibal, plot, character, setting, and theme all exist, but they are all contingent. Hawkes makes them as pliable as Silly Putty. Characters, for example, do not have to behave consistently. Scenes change abruptly, without warning. Landscapes morph. This is a fictional world and fictional rules govern. There isn’t even an obvious candidate for which, if any, character might be the titular cannibal. On one terribly hot day, Stella has a vision of “cannibals on tropical islands or on the dark continent, running with white bones in their hair, dark feet hardened in the shimmering sand.” My own suspicion is that the cannibal is war itself. War is the theme that hovers in the background of every scene in the book and actually gives the novel its ultimate meaning.

In 1949, New Directions obviously thought that the reader of The Cannibal needed a bit of help, so they asked writer and critic Albert J. Guerard do an Introduction to the book. “No doubt the reader has a right to discover the hidden beauties for himself, during the first year of a novel’s life. . . ,” Guerard wrote, but “it would be well if we could get at the restless and original Kafkas at least, if not the Djuna Barnes, over a shorter period of ridicule, without having to wait so long.” In a few pages, Guerard delicately unpacked the key elements of the book and tried to put the reader at ease who wanted everything to add up precisely, for this is a story that is “radically out of focus, which was of course intended.” Whether John Hawkes will be a Franz Kafka or a Djuna Barnes only history will tell.

I’ve had several of John Hawkes’s books on my shelves for a while. More to come.