Hawkes, John (Vol. 15)
Hawkes, John 1925–
Hawkes is an American novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Jonathan Baumbach calls Hawkes "something of a naturalist in reverse"; in his experimental fiction he delineates life as a surrealistic, often terrifying, dream world. Hawkes himself has said that his novels are attempts to renew the form of that genre. According to critic Albert Guerard, in whose writing class Hawkes wrote his first novel, The Cannibal, he is "perhaps the most original American novelist since Faulkner." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Since the appearance of his first novel, The Cannibal, in 1949, the work of John Hawkes has proven him to be a writer whose technical control, poetic imagery and content demand critical recognition. His novels challenge the reader's imagination and force him to read them with the care necessary in reading most modern poetry. The variety of experimental techniques in dealing with time and space in his fiction, the use of fantasy and dream and the pervasive, naturalistic theme of the determinacy of history and myth over men's lives suggest the influence in his work of naturalism and symbolism. In this he belongs to a tradition which combines the Gothic fiction of Charles Brockden Brown and Poe with the compressed symbolism and ironic view of Crane, Bierce and, on occasion, Hemingway. In Hawkes's particular view of the novel and the function of the novelist, the imagination dominates the fact…. Because of his "detached" approach, Hawkes achieves sympathy without sentimentality. His credo might be shared by Djuna Barnes, Nathanael West, Bernard Malamud, James Purdy, and Flannery O'Connor among contemporary writers…. Where Hawkes excels over the tried-and-true "realistic" writers is in the uses of imagination and the power to excite that faculty in the reader. (pp. 345-46)
[His technique of reworking myths to convey his perspective of modern man] is most evident in The Beetle Leg (1951), a novel set in the American desert...
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The Owl originally appeared in 1954, in a double volume with another short novel, also set in Italy, called The Goose on the Grave. That these two works are of unequal quality has become increasingly apparent over the years. The Goose on the Grave suffers from a murky atmosphere, a lack of focus and coherence, as if indeed it were written by someone who felt (as Hawkes has claimed to feel) that plot, character, setting, and theme are the worst enemies of the novel. The Owl is altogether different. It is tightly organized. It is strong precisely in plot, character, setting, and theme. (p. 2)
The Owl is one of the very best of Hawkes' fictions, and probably the best introduction to his work. His method has always been to work with strong images that can be developed into scenes of nightmarish power and vividness, and then to seek some means of connecting these scenes in a coherent and developmental way. Because he starts with images rather than with a story, his work is different from conventionally plotted fiction, though this is not the same thing as being without plot altogether. Over the years, as his work has developed, he has turned more and more to the unifying voice of a single narrator as a way of giving coherence to the events of his narrative. At the same time, his fiction, which began with an emphasis on terror, violence, and death, has moved from those horrors toward a lush...
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It is sometimes dangerous to trust an author's comments on his own work, but it is sometimes equally dangerous not to trust him. Schooled in the "intentional fallacy," and wary of authorial pronouncements, modern readers are reluctant to accept uncritically even comments which are accurate and illuminating. Such is the case with John Hawkes. In interviews and essays Hawkes insists that critics have over-emphasized the terror and violence of his novels while underemphasizing their comic form and vision. Thus one of his basic concerns in Second Skin was to clarify the general comic intentions in his writing…. [Hawkes defines] his comic method. "I think that the comic method functions in several ways; on the one hand it serves to create sympathy, compassion, and on the other it's a means for judging human failings as severely as possible." (p. 169)
The reader's reluctance to accept an author's interpretation of his own work extends to Skipper as well as to Hawkes. As author of Second Skin Skipper is just as potentially unreliable, and if critics have ignored Hawkes's conclusions about his novel, they have actively disbelieved Skipper's conclusions about himself. Grasping the fashionable critical handle of "unreliable narrator," critics like [Thomas] LeClair and [John] Kuehl argue that Skipper is a villain, lying to himself and the reader. In some cases, certainly, Skipper is unreliable. One of the major functions of...
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Konrad Vost, hero of "The Passion Artist," continues Hawkes's fictional interest in relations between the sexes. Vost's artistry in passion is his ability to walk a thin line between desire and frustration. His erotic passivity and anger are counterweights, each checking the pull of the other from giving in or letting go. (p. 7)
Hawkes seems fascinated by ambivalence as a deadlock between passivity and violence. When Vost permits a young prostitute to beckon him out of his six-year sexual fast, his rage flows with his orgasm. When female prisoners revolt against their guards, he joins the guards, beating the most fragile women the most violently. These events suggest large meanings: Men seem drawn to women because they hold the promise of pleasure and release but are repelled because women make them lose their self-control. When the anger of women is not contained, it erupts in vengeance on men. If male fury is not checked by male passivity, it becomes a murderous force. But Hawkes raises such large issues only to drop them in a series of pornographic, sadomasochistic scenes in which Vost is victimizer and victimized.
Hawkes throws away the force of his vision in episodes that, though striking, go nowhere. Vost seems merely a puppet in the sideshow of a master of special effects. Hawkes is too much the detached connoisseur of disaster; the facile perversions of "The Passion Artist" inspire the dubious admiration one...
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Edward R. Stephenson
The Passion Artist is a startling, erotic, terrifyingly honest and stylistically lush achievement, the kind of novel his readers have come to expect from John Hawkes. Once again, Hawkes focuses upon a "traveler," here a "stationary traveler," one Konrad Vost, the typical Hawkes male: the searching self, questing for meaning as defined by his relationships with the several significant women in his life. (p. 278)
Vost's most important journey … focuses upon his attempt to come to grips with his past as an only (apparently) unwanted child. We watch as this "disordered," sensitive "little trumpeter" undergoes various sexual encounters, For him, the past—his insomniac father, his homicidal mother, his lusty, brutal guardian—all that "which is gone" can be summarized by "Shame and grief. Shame and grief."
But Vost knows moments of triumph as well. He can achieve the level of the "passion artist," though, as the novel's second epigraph suggests, the expression of that achievement is as difficult for Konrad Vost as it is for Kafka's "hunger artist." Vost finally knows that experience which makes every man an "artist": "willed erotic union."
Konrad Vost is ludicrous, pathetic, frightening, absurd, self-assured and timid. He is at once sacrificial victim and victimizer. He is Hawkes's most important and successful character since Skipper (Second Skin).
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The novelist's first allegiance is to his art, but it's impossible for me to think of fiction without a moral center. Mine is Conradian. My work is an effort to expose the worst in us all, to cause us to face up to the enormities of our terrible potential for betrayal, disgrace, and criminal behavior. I think that it is necessary to destroy repression while showing at the same time that the imagination is unlimited….
The work that is deeply and truly moral violates conventional morality. The writer who sets out to create his own world in a sense defies the world around him. He has to become an outcast, an outsider. He works in isolation to create something which to him is a thing of beauty, as well as a thing of knowledge and moral meaning. And that act is a risk, an assault on the world as we think we know it, and as such can be viewed as dangerous, destructive, criminal. But I think it is necessary to go to extremes. The writer knows what it is like to rebel, to defy, to be alone in situations of extreme risk, so he has an ultimate sympathy with those who have been judged as unfit for conventional society….
[It's] true that I am an idealistic writer. The word "innocence" is somewhat disturbing but I am afraid that I really can't evade it. I've been trying to destroy my own innate innocence for a long time now, over 30 years, but it still permeates my work. If my novels are experienced by some people as...
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Albert J. Guerard
The preoccupation with sexual anxiety and impotence may mislead readers into seeing The Passion Artist as a continuation of Hawkes's trilogy: Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep and the Traveler, Travesty. But the new novel has little of their sinuous, suave, playful sophistication, and very few moments of perverse bliss. It represents, rather, an altogether conscious and very powerful return, after 30 years, to the bleak, devastated fictive world and the psychic cripplings of The Cannibal.
[The] pervasive misogyny is that of an intense, dynamic authorial imagination, and it is even more explicit than Faulkner's. The Passion Artist is, whatever its deficiencies, a serious work of art.
The differences in style, as one looks back to the opening of The Cannibal, are radical. Highly controlled statement has replaced metaphor….
It would be idle to demand of a highly conscious and expert novelist in his 50s the primitive, even atavistic energies of a man of 23. But the conventional intellectuality of style of most of the first 57 pages of The Passion Artist is dismaying: periodic, ponderous, even pedantic sentences; a written quality reminiscent of Thomas Mann and even James. This prose faithfully reflects the sluggish mentality and uneventful daily life of Konrad Vost. The quotidian monotony is broken, to be sure, by traumatic events….
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