An “experimental” novelist of remarkable achievement, John Hawkes wrote dark, menacingly comic novels of the grotesque and the gothic. His fiction creates difficulty for the reader who is unwilling to concur in the underlying conviction in Hawkes’s works that beauty is difficult. Although some have accused him of mere indulgence, he strove, through numerous revisions, for coherence, conscious control, and form. His ideal was the creation of a pure vision that did not rely on moral and literary conventions. Hawkes carried the suffocating burden of evil, destruction, putrefaction, and sexual perversion with such success that he could insist: “The product of extreme fictive detachment is extreme fictive sympathy.” The creative process itself, he said, “is probably immoral, but its ultimate aim and moral purpose is compassion for every living thing.”
John Clendenin Burne Hawkes, Jr., lived in Old Greenwich and in New York City until he was ten, when his family moved to Juneau, Alaska. He attended Trinity School, Pawling, and, after serving a year in Germany with the American Field Service, Harvard College. In Albert Guerard’s creative writing class, he finished two novels, The Cannibal and Charivari. The Cannibal, a nightmare vision of Germany after World War II, evokes the desolation of war-torn Europe and forecasts the repetition of Nazi destruction. When the novel appeared in 1949 (the year of his graduation from Harvard), Hawkes was twenty-three years old, well-read in modern poetry but unacquainted with much contemporary fiction. Although he claimed that his books “came out of a vacuum,” comparisons were quickly made with Franz Kafka, Djuna Barnes, Flannery O’Connor, and Nathanael West; later books also show the distinct influence of William Faulkner.
Until 1955, Hawkes was assistant to the production manager at Harvard...
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