John Hawkes is a novelist of great originality and abrasive power whose intensely personal vision reveals the painfulness and absurdity of so much experience in the modern world that seems filled with violence, frustration, and lovelessness. His books, experimental in technique, belong to a modern genre of the grotesque and the absurd.
Experiment as it was manifested in the 1920’s has been tempered into the conventions of good craftsmanship, and no complaint against this healthy level of art and intelligence on which many later novelists’ work should be registered; the whole point of literary revolution is to create a new and consistent order. At any time, a young novelist may appear who forces the reader, almost against his will, to revise his mode of apprehending experience. Such a novelist is Hawkes, who is certainly not without a full share of art and intelligence, but who exercises these faculties to create a special mirror of life which startles readers by the absolute clarity with which it reflects the distortions of dignity and decency in the life of man. Hawkes does not attempt to resolve or explain these distortions; he renders them truly. They convey that sense of unreality which is one of the realities of modern life.
Hawkes is not without his kinships and predecessors. He is in direct descent from the Gothic visions of Poe, whose imp of the perverse perched also upon the shoulder of Hawkes’s contemporary, Flannery O’Connor. Among English writers, one might look back to William Beckford or, updating the comparison, to some of the earlier works of Graham Greene, particularly BRIGHTON ROCK. Hawkes goes beyond any of these, however, in his coolly composed delineation of mundane terror. His perception of psychological experience grows organically from the clinical documentation provided by modern psychiatry; much of his imagery derives clearly from the painting and poetry of the Surrealists; the atmosphere in which his story takes place is a compounding of the elements of Gothic atmosphere and wasteland terrain; and the motivation of his characters is rooted in the despair and absurdity which are so much a part of the modern temper. In Hawkes’s work, the traditional and the experimental, the typical and the unique, the natural and the monstrously grotesque are all fused in a vision of verifiable mid-century experience.
Developing a technique suitable for his purpose had been Hawkes’s creative problem. Some of the earlier books projected complexity in such a way as only to cause difficulty for his readers. THE LIME TWIG, Hawkes’s fifth novel, though still full of pitfalls for the unwary, is remarkable for the clarity of its outline and the accessibility of its substance. One device is a kind of choric newspaper column which appears at the beginning of each chapter. Written by a gaily inquisitive reporter by the name of Sidney Slyter, the column serves to provide narrative continuity, to establish a...
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