Hawkes, John 1925–
Hawkes, an American novelist, short story writer, and playwright, continues in his brilliant fiction to "dissolve the rational universe," presenting dream worlds composed of nightmares. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Hawkes is our dark dreaming map-maker. What is underneath is his province: no one is his peer in creating images of sexual mystery, casual violence to flesh or form, or those dreams we fall asleep to evade. He is the necessary haunting of our house.
Death, Sleep & the Traveler continues his recent concern for anti-monogamous love. (p. 177)
Like his prose, Allert, the protagonist and narrator of Death, Sleep & the Traveler, is sometimes brutal, often ugly, very incisive, and at times blandly funny. Allert brings to the surface—hence the rightness of the title—many of Hawkes's concerns. This is a novel about death. As well, it is the story of Odysseus wandering toward home while his Penelope has told him he needn't bother. Allert is the Flying Dutchman, the Ancient Mariner, the gothic wanderer in short—Hawkes's Traveler of the title, and of so many of his novels and stories—who is condemned, but who, unlike his typological fellow sufferers, cries out that he is innocent.
And Allert is another of Hawkes's survivors. At the end of the novel he declares "I am not guilty."… Hawkes has made a psychic survivor, as hero who embodies our dreams and lusts, and whom we do not want to admit we are. Death, Sleep & the Traveler is a very brave novel in that regard, and one for which many readers will therefore not thank him. (pp. 177-78)
What is least interesting about the novel—this is true of The Blood Oranges also, I think—is the assault upon monogamous love. Although Hawkes makes memorable characters in both novels, and though we are interested in their reactions, we are aware, always, that the characters perform upon a tapestry of Hawkes's weaving. His interest is ultimately the voice of the narrator, the language of which he makes worlds; close psychological scrutiny is not his primary concern. Hence, we do not really study the breakdown of married love or the buildup of love among three or four people. We watch what happens—what we know Hawkes designs as event—and rejoice at the images in which it all is described, and in the superb control of tone which Allert, in this case, exerts. (Even Allert for all his pornographizing and sexual energies, is not interested in the psychology or physiology of the sex itself …)—there is a formality to his perception of sex, for he is interested, as is Hawkes, in the form itself. (pp. 178-79)
In Charivari, his first novel, and in The Beetle Leg, as well as in The Innocent Party and The Blood Oranges, Hawkes refers to a fishing-up of the self and, at the same time, of death. He sees the making of fiction as a pursuit of the self with hooks; he sees its risk as the hauling-in of all sorts of horror. (p. 179)
From the "real" protagonist on imagined terrain (Second Skin) to the persuasive protagonist on an imaginary yet particularized land (The Blood Oranges) to the controlled madness of a dreamer on a dreamship floating on a dreamy sea: that is the fictive progression of Hawkes to Death, Sleep & the Traveler. (p. 180)
Does this present coalescing mean that Hawkes has read his own works too hard? Or does it signify the coming-together in a conscious way of a career's imagery? Those who have lain...
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in wait for Hawkes … will take the former position. Some more congenial readers might, as well; but it is more likely that they will see this novel as the culmination of certain celebrated fictive tendencies and tactics….
In the real world, Hawkes has planted his bold shape composed of reiterations, variations, chronological leapfrogging of events. An action culminated one way on page 29 (a stroll to the ship's swimming pool) begins again on page 71, and ends in a very different way: thus, we can in effect walk around an action, examine it in more than one way—as if itself were statuary. (p. 181)
But with Hawkes one begins and ends with prose. When he is at his best, the achievement of his language is startling…. Our wonder is directed beyond the terrifying or disturbingly new vision forced upon our unwilling imaginations, and to the live language itself. (pp. 181-82)
Frederick Busch, in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1974 by Chicago Review), Volume 26, Number 2, 1974.
By sheer adroitness [in Death, Sleep & the Traveler] Mr. Hawkes skips lightly over the treacherous sands of preciosity with his … at times surrealistic novel about a middle-aged Dutch sensualist accused of murder and his equally libidinous wife, whom the protagonist and narrator continually offers to his oldest friend so he may in turn act as voyeur. Action, always subdued and regarded as a matter of some unimportance in any case, takes place to a modest extent on a phantom pleasure cruise aboard a vessel that moves in desultory fashion, apparently as fancy dictates. For a psychological study with symbolic overtones the author's narrative is absorbing, challenging, imaginative, and to a degree mystifying, thus constituting a suitable candidate for designation as a re-readable book. (p. cxx)
The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 4 (Autumn, 1974).
In Second Skin Hawkes found a method of narration—first-person unreliability—which allowed him to treat "disability and inadequacy and hypocrisy with brutal humor" and the necessary detachment…. The novel has classical elements of comedy—hero's life integrated on a higher plane, love triumphing over death, lush pastoral setting, release from the past, new youthful innocence—but Hawkes uses them as parody to exploit the discrepancy between his false comic hero and the heroes of Shakespeare's comedies. (pp. 20-1)
Thomas LeClair, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975.
Some of the scenes in Death, Sleep and the Traveller have a Pre-Raphaelite quality, the details described with precision and clarity, the total effect romantically blurred and disturbing. How much is real? How much a dream? Or does all take place in that coma in which the psychiatrist leads his patient dangerously near to death? John Hawkes shares his narrator's 'preoccupation with the myths and actual practices of sexuality', and the intensity of his vision and the sharpness of his observation hypnotise the reader. If this story has a moral, it is that guilt can be a source of strength: we destroy it at our peril. (p. 254)
John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), February 20, 1975.
It would probably have been too tempting to docket John Hawkes's last novel, The Blood Oranges, as a highbrow meditation on wife-swapping. It is, however, absolutely imperative to dismiss his new one, Death, Sleep and the Traveller, as a bathetic and entirely risible prose-poem on the ménage à trois…. [The] plot, as Mr Hawkes's devotees will be happy to point out, is more or less irrelevant: the attractions here are supposed to reside in the novel's symbolism (put into it in a way that makes it easy for critics to get it out again) and the swirling obliquities of the prose….
Is it that the dialogue is subtly heightened, or is it that Mr Hawkes has no ear? Is it that the characters are daringly stylised, or is it that Mr Hawkes can't characterise? Is it that the prose is excitingly flexible, or is that Mr Hawkes can neither punctuate nor parse (commas are habitually wedged between main clauses; 'I shall dream of she who…', begins the would-be soaring penultimate sentence)? Mr Hawkes is not a Writers' Writer so much as a Bad Writers' Writer: he gives them encouragement and he will win their praise. But nobody else need listen. (p. 250)
Martin Amis, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 21, 1975.
As much as anything else, facing up to 'enormities of ugliness' is responsible for Hawkes's tentative place in the canon of American novelists. Such writing can win through by strength of documentary evidence, can beat its way to readers by sheer weight; but it can also put itself in line to be thought of as 'subversive.' Indeed, Hawkes attributes his dispiriting lack of a true reputation among British readers to his belief that his novels threaten the traditional order and clarity of English as it is spoken and, Hawkes thinks, cherished by the English themselves….
In The Lime Twig sense of place is important. We know it to be wartime London, yet Hawkes creates places and landscapes, sometimes from the data of experience, sometimes entirely from his imagination, and sometimes (as in The Lime Twig) from an imaginative processing of literature. Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, even Dickens, might all have been partly responsible for his vision of London.
It is in the creation of these imaginative landscapes that Hawkes's originality and brilliance are to be found. His first novel The Cannibal … relies on this aspect of his imagination to an extraordinary extent. The book is an evocation of ruin, distortion, destruction, the dilapidation of cities and people. Whether or not one calls it 'experimental', The Cannibal must be among the most impressive first novels ever….
The Cannibal was well received on its American publication. A reviewer in Time, who later turned out to be Irving Howe, described it as 'the strangest book of 1949'. Superficial comment of this sort has dogged Hawkes ever since. 'Gothic', for instance, is one of the categories into which his novels have been docketed, a term which has the sole virtue of suggesting Hawkes as a peculiarly European writer despite his nationality. The Cannibal, like The Lime Twig, The Owl, The Goose on the Grave, The Blood Oranges, and Death, Sleep and the Traveller, has a European setting. Time and place however are of only imaginative importance to Hawkes; indeed, that is their primary importance. He said to me that he never tried to reflect anything in his novels, that social matters were incidental. Despite this belief, his novels have much to tell about life and society. (p. 24)
Imagination and language are what Hawkes insists on in a novel. Yet a reader could come away from The Cannibal with little more than an anthology of miniature poems. The writing, however, is never impressionistic. Creative urgency makes the book cohere, with the purpose not of retrieving just one moment of historical disaster from the chronicles, but of presenting an ahistorical vision of dire human predicament. Indeed, the imaginative detachment of the writer from that recent history makes the book even more disturbing. Landscape, language and story are allowed to work on the reader, who in turn has to work creatively himself.
But the socially pictorial function of The Cannibal is strong enough. As a vision of the aftermath of the totalitarians, its cumulative punch is cruelly informative; the point is, however, that the direction of the book is not towards altering or informing our historical senses (though there must inevitably be something of that) but at presenting us with one man's imaginative consideration of that time and place, in which only the moon can be called, by a child, 'the just man'….
[If the writing is at times] comic, it is also deeply coincidental with absurdist European writing, the climate in which Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus. Hawkes's books up to Second Skin (1964) are post Second World War in the way we would say that of East European writing but not of our own, nor, generally, that of the United States. Hawkes's beggared aristocrats, ludicrous mayors and human wreckage in The Cannibal live out their comic, cruel nightmares in landscape created by a consciousness that must, early on, have developed an acute fascination with the European experience. Hawkes professes to be ill-read and untutored; if that's true, then his imagination, his creative intuitions, have done his reading for him….
Landscape replaces society in Hawkes's books … [and] experience plays its part…, almost always at the level of place, the impact of landscapes. In The Beetle Leg, 'the only death that ever came to anything' on that arid, threatening landscape was the accidental burial of one of the Lampson brothers in an earth-fall during the dam's perpetual construction. It forms the central obsession of the book. A typically retrospective scene describes a waggon column of old women crossing the desert to the wedding of one their own age to a younger man, the now dead Lampson. When he concentrates on an evocation of that kind, his best writing is elicited from him, at once dramatic and descriptive. (p. 25)
Hawkes is drawn towards the grotesque and violent, these often congealing in threatening figures such as Leevey in The Cannibal…. Many of Hawkes's characters seem not to have lived, but to have been sickened. (pp. 25-6)
Hawkes's fascination for the disgustingly violent [does] get out of hand. He does appear to work himself into a state of abject fascination with those descriptions of what all men must be against. On the other hand, drawing these fascinations from himself may be no more than artistic honesty….
Hawkes's imagination cannot always resist being attracted by the squalor which it is ruthlessly determined, if not to oppose, at least to recognise. It goes beyond recognition. Hawkes has written of 'a rare climate of pure and immoral creation', by which he means much the same as Nabokov's disavowal of any moral intention in Lolita. To Hawkes, the scrupulous artist is one who abstains from moral assertion, who works entirely through the imagination, who sees socially reflexive moralities as impediments. A novel by John Hawkes is therefore obliged to create its own world, its own logic and sequence. His work does seek by so doing to rise above whatever in conventional morality has been contradicted by events and characters.
It is something like this which has been behind the adverse criticism of his novels. Perhaps the fiercest attack has been Roger Sale's in The New York Review of Books, a review of The Blood Oranges which Hawkes remembers as a 'damaging, fiercely personal, cruel review' [see CLC-4]. Saying that the book was the work of a 'contemptible imagination', Sale described Hawkes as 'more an unadmitted voyeur of horror than its calm delineator'. The charge is certainly a severe one. What Sale is unable to recognise is the extent to which Hawkes's novels transcend obsession. This is partly a matter of detachment, a quality in novel writing Hawkes emphasises. It is also a matter of how his novels are structured, his primary motive being, it seems to me, a search for imaginative unity and containment, attempting to separate his novels from the moralities of the real world by which they could be condemned. His moral perspectives are not so much mistaken as created. What happens in a novel by Hawkes cannot be criticised by the morality of characters, or the morality of their author. Each book is in its own unique world, its own landscape. Only by importing conventions of morality—which Hawkes would maintain are themselves fictions—into the world of a conventionally realistic novel can such condemnations be made. And Hawkes's novels are far from being conventionally realistic.
For instance, The Blood Oranges … is narrated by Cyril, a 'reprehensible narrator'. He sees himself as a 'sex-aesthetician', a 'sex-singer', and is the dominant figure of a 'quaternion' of American émigrés. His aureate, narcissistically 'elegant' style is even more of a give-away than Dowell's in The Good Soldier. The pleasures of reading a novel by such a person are taken too far by Hawkes to be pleasurable. Cyril does become tedious. As a result, our enjoyment of Hawkes's stylistic invention, which in this book is amazing, is left with no clear object, no totally satisfying reason in our minds for why the novel should have been written in that way. Cyril remains in the memory as a cruel trivialiser.
This doesn't even start to go half-way towards meeting Roger Sale's objections to the book. What has happened in The Blood Oranges is that Hawkes's prized detachment—in this case through style—makes it virtually impossible for us to see what intention he might have had, the way he might have wanted us to look at Cyril and consider what he says and stands for. (p. 26)
Similarly, in Death, Sleep and the Traveller, Allert is a 'reprehensible narrator' in casting, but one who does, more actively than either Skipper or Cyril, engage our partial, complicated sympathy. A reader has to work against the social value of such characters, and see them in their own created worlds. Hawkes's fictions are full of such obstacles. (p. 27)
My feeling is … that complication and extremity are characteristics of Hawkes's imagination, that he cares so much for the use of imagination that he prefers mystery and uncertainty over the clear and precise. His novels proceed not by sequential unfoldings of information, by progressive, careful movements towards giving the reader 'satisfactory' information or 'plot'. Instead they work by moving backwards and forwards in time, with vague illuminations carefully divulged at chosen points in the narrative. The impression is more one of tentative discoveries made by the reader than of clever intrusions by an omniscient author. There is no effect of things falling into place according to some pattern devised for 'suspense' beforehand, but of a narrative shaped by imagination. Where his deliberations are unworthy of his gifts is in his artful use of myth symbol, and literary allusion, devices which in Second Skin give the impression of that most tedious of all types of literature, the hermetic….
Hawkes, I feel, can do nothing without being extreme…. Imagination, after all, should not preclude the ordinary, yet Hawkes's imagination has a habit of doing so, of producing distortion and absurdity more than creating his own distorted, absurdist worlds as imaginative counterparts of that absurdist world he detects that we live in. The power and fertility of that imagination are not in doubt. What can be looked at with some alarm are the violent obsessions of it, those nightmare inventions of a single, suffering psyche which can have artistic validity only to exactly the extent Hawkes can detach them from himself and contain them in an imagined world. His art treads a narrow, dangerous path. One feels that a single slip, a minuscule relaxation of his grasp on artistic control, taste, of his ability to organise, and his art would become not only subjectively unwholesome, but objectively … contemptible…. (p. 28)
Douglas Dunn, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.; 11 Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), March, 1975.
John Hawkes is at the centre of America's polymorphous frenzy to educate itself into 'this day and age of honest sex'. For me it's all making American bodies, male and female, too actual in the imagination. I'm beginning to get squeamish about all those articulated [details]…. I've always tended to feel that bodies were nice; at last I've begun to realize what life as a Turkish bath attendant must be like. Even the word 'pornography', which for long seemed to me a completely useless critical tool, beyond definition, has now a value. I see its usefulness: it means a work that's intended to arouse you erotically but slumps miserably, especially an overwritten one.
Hawkes is in the same window as Faulkner. He's stoked the reviewers to outbursts of fine writing…. Only Saul Bellow speaks with restraint…. The stimulation of the more stimulable reviewers is understandable for Hawkes studs his own paragraphs with hard gemlike phrases: 'like some enormous scab peeled from the wound of the night'. It's the way Durrell's supposed to write but doesn't, except perhaps in an unwitty moment…. 'Coma and myth are inseparable,' says Peter in the key passage of [Death, Sleep and the Traveller]. 'True myth can only be experienced in coma.' So can this book, but unfortunately Hawkes hasn't the barbiturate power. (pp. 112-13)
Herbert Lomas, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), October/November, 1975.
["Travesty"] is a disturbing book—and John Hawkes is perhaps the most "disturbing" contemporary American writer, a comment that is intended as the reverse of a criticism—but since this volume is intended as the conclusion of a trilogy, it is worth looking again at the two volumes which preceded it—"Blood Oranges" (1971) and "Death, Sleep & the Traveler" (1974)—and note some of the connections and continuities.
All three novels have married male narrators. They all share a "preoccupation with the myths and actual practices of sexuality," all are in differing ways voyeuristic (photographs play a distinct role in each book), all seem to accept what the narrator of "Blood Oranges" calls "the obvious multiplicity of love"…. Each narration is marked by that dark circuitous lyricism that Hawkes can now handle with absolute mastery; each narrator is concerned with considerations of form, symmetry, design; each narrative moves towards death. The nameless landscapes, each marked by that hallucinatory vividness that Hawkes so magically distills from geographical anonymity, change from a southern Mediterranean type of primitive, sun-drenched terrain, to a ship on a voyage giving "no indication of purpose or cessation," to a drive through a wet cold night in a bleak terrain that feels like Northern Europe. After that there is, as it were, nowhere else on earth to go for, as the narrator of "Travesty" promises with his last words—"there shall be no survivors. None."
The narrator of "Blood Oranges" presides, or attempts to preside, over an erotic pastoral of his own contriving. "Love weaves its own tapestry"—so he begins, but in effect he is attempting to weave the tapestry himself, creating symmetries and patterns among the "quarternion" that he and his wife make up with another couple. He has a sense for the "sex tableau" they can comprise together and regards them all as "the shapely pieces of a perfectly understandable puzzle." This attempt to exercise a benign tyranny of form, to subvert life into idyll, is necessarily ambiguous…. [The] narrator reveals problematical aspects of his own expansive attitudes, and not just in his attempt to make people enact his theories. Thus, for all his desire for coherence and form and tapestried compositions, he is always drawn to what he refers to as "modes of incongruity" (a key word throughout the trilogy) and is what may be called a connoisseur of "deformity."…
The narrator [of "Death, Sleep & the Traveler"] is writing from a place that is impossible to locate and stabilize, temporally, spatially and psychologically. Vivid fragments of experience appear in a discontinuous sequence that has "the severe structure of a bad dream." The narrator is conscious of his "total identification with the dead ship" on which he seems to slip in and out of time, in and out of life. He recalls a friend telling him that he lives his "entire life in a coma" and his numbed lugubrious itemization of past incidents, present encounters, or the barren and latently hostile geography the ship passes or visits, suggests a state of feeling degree zero, an estranged consciousness somehow communicating from the other side of catatonia…. The word psychopath does, in fact, occur, and the whole book could be, among other things, the dream or mental travelogue of a psychopath. Which brings us to "Travesty."
One can have varying reactions to the narrator's monologue en route to death—if that is what it is for, as he revealingly says, "do not believe me—ever." His "private apocalypse" might be an act of ruthless revenge after years of suppressed jealousy despite his urbane disclaimers as to that possibility. Or a reader might be in some way hypnotized if not exactly persuaded by the perverse kind of esthetic with which he justifies his plan…. But mentally he is psychopathic in the impenetrable speciousness of his nihilism that to him, apparently, seems totally and beautifully rational. Even if it is all a very sick joke…, it is the joke of a psychopath.
The title points a possible direction. Quite early on the narrator refers to an incident in his early manhood that "determined or revealed the nature of the life I would henceforth lead." He describes it casually as "something of a travesty."… A travesty is "a burlesque or ludicrous imitation of a serious work," a "grotesque image or likeness," a parody. Murder is a travesty of love, sickness is a travesty of health, death is a travesty of life. Psychopathic derangement is a travesty of human reason, and our amiable narrator is a kind of diabolic genius at the perverse art of travesty.
But the book is finally disturbing, not because it is a kind of "diary of a madman" but because we cannot know how to "read" it in any one stable, reassuring way. For one thing, it is an "impossible object" like Browning's "Childe Roland" and Poe's "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym"—i.e., if what is going on is what he says is going on, how do we have the text, etc. More notably, it is disturbing for the same reason that dreams are disturbing, because in Gregory Bateson's terms, we cannot "frame" it, it contains no "markers" to indicate how it is to read. That this kind of disturbance can yield mental and esthetic "pleasure" of a very high order testifies perhaps to those "faint sinister qualities of the artistic mind" that no writer knows better how to exploit than John Hawkes. However we read him, there is no doubt that he is one of the very best living American writers, and "Travesty" one of his most remarkable fictions. (p. 24)
Tony Tanner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1976.
["Travesty" is a] hollow, coolly elegant novel in the form of an impassioned monologue delivered by a man who is at the wheel of a car that is carrying him, his best friend, and his twenty-five-year-old daughter toward death in a willed accident which he believes will be of "unique, spectacular, instantaneous … purity." This is the third volume of a trilogy, and it sucks delicately but persistently at the same themes as its predecessors: sexual myths, the poetic imagination, and existential acts of daring. As in the two previous volumes, there is an odd mixture here of glossy goods (the travellers are entombed in a luxurious "sport-touring car," the man lives in a fine château somewhere in the South of France), lofty tone, and vulgar pickings from popular culture. Throughout the book, the driver tries to justify this suicide-murder to his friend and occasionally to his daughter. That they are probably unconvinced by his arguments (though they never actually speak for themselves) seems likely; that the reader is unconvinced by them and, worse, soon stops caring is certain. To open a door and find behind it only another door, and beyond that another door and another, can be an interesting activity only if the doors look sufficiently inviting, as they do in the mysterious spaces of Samuel Beckett's work. Thus far, Mr. Hawkes' novels have offered the reader only an endless succession of ornately painted panels. (p. 134)
The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 19, 1976.
Comic, erotic, and often terrifying, [Hawkes's] novels wander into dreams from which the reader does not wish to wake, trances of the sort Nabokov calls "aesthetic bliss." Neither quite real nor expressly fantastic, Hawkes's situations compel us to recognize that we harbor their equivalents within ourselves….
Always,… Hawkes must find the precise detail to continue the reader's headlong plunge into the dream. When the detail fails, the fiction seems excessively mannered…. [When his images] fail to work behind our retinas they are merely grotesque ornaments, skulls of small animals hung from Christmas trees. There is some merit to the accusation, made by a reviewer of a previous novel, that Hawkes is a member of the middle-aged avant-garde. But his work is usually rich and satisfying, and his best is not behind him.
[Travesty] is, however, disappointing…. The narrative is essentially a single sustained moment, and really does not have the stamina of a novel. He should have pared it down to a short story, instead of allowing it to expand to novella length. The note on the dust jacket describing Travesty as the last novel of a trilogy "concerned with sex, myth, the imagination, and the absurd"—a trilogy that supposedly includes Blood Oranges and Death, Sleep, & the Traveler—is another false note designed to inflate this work's importance; I trust, however, that John Hawkes was not responsible for the publisher's blurb. The description is accurate enough for all of his works, but has no specific application to these last three. And these three novels are not related to each other.
Travesty has some splendid moments, but the reader who is not already a Hawkes fan would be advised to start with something else.
Charles Nicol, "Imaginary Death," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 30, 1976, p. 461.
Travesty is an interesting minor work of a major novelist, an ironic palinode to Hawkes' recent fiction. It completes the trilogy of "sexual extension" begun in The Blood Oranges and continued through Death, Sleep and the Traveler by reducing the dense materials of those two novels into a parodic fable of failed eroticism. Like Barth's recycling Chimera, Travesty has its own tale in its mouth, is a self-reflecting, self-consuming, choking-joking little thing. It will amuse Hawkes' faithful readers, but others may miss the humor of a novel that is more figure than carpet.
While Barthelme and Barth are our best known parodists, Hawkes has long enjoyed the "guilty pleasures" of twisting literary forms. The Beetle Leg reruns the American Western, The Lime Twig subverts the detective story, Second Skin mocks the classic American Adam tale, and The Blood Oranges reworks the romantic pastoral. Hawkes' purpose has been to expose and employ the dark sides of these forms. In Travesty, a 128-page suicide note, Hawkes begins with negation and forces it to a foolishness that the reader can never quite trust. Parodying what Anthony Alvarez has called the "art of suicide," Hawkes also examines some of his own basic impulses as a writer….
He has always created a context of absence by subtracting causality, ordinary people, workaday actions, identifiable settings, social niceties and a popular culture from his fictions. The result is an extraordinary focusing of attention, a distorted clarity: "the greater the silence, the louder the tick." In Travesty, constriction is extreme: we have only glimpses of a dark external world, normalcy is compulsion, the past a fiction. A single voice yarns away. He is the familiar Hawkesian explainer, an "innocent" victim like Cyril of The Blood Oranges, a bemused failure like Allert in Death, Sleep and the Traveler. But now he is a killer, the Hawkesian coward evolved to his logical extreme, a travesty of those earlier narrators who tried to eroticize the landscape or dreamt the worst of dreams. (p. 26)
Always concerned with the physics of fantasy, Hawkes in Travesty exaggerates the elements of his fiction some readers have found repugnant and thus demonstrates his awareness of the dangers and limits of his ruthlessness. His holding up the mirror to the mirror is not so much self-indulgent as generously, albeit ironically and bleakly, self-revelatory. While the novel lacks some of the pleasures of Hawkes' best work—resonating verbal texture, chambered structure, largeness of mind—it does have the gouging insistence of its simplicities and a witty contempt for itself. Its narrator seeks only silence. Hawkes, even in this brief sport, still seeks to articulate the dream that will liberate us from our nightmares and our daily banalities. Though disfigured by exaggeration and often private, Travesty does this and, perhaps more importantly, provides a remarkable and welcome coda to Hawkes' major novels. (pp. 26-7)
Thomas LeClair, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 8, 1976.
In any given generation of American literature there are at best a handful of magicians, writers whose prose gives off that will-o'-the-wisp luminescence which, however faint in the dense thickets of fiction and poetry, will continue to glow, years later. John Hawkes's The Lime Twig, Second Skin, The Owl, are already milestones of contemporary fiction. Travesty is intended as the last of a "triad" of novels, but it can stand alone while recalling the horrifying comedy of the author's early work.
Ostensibly, Travesty is the monologue of a French businessman, speeding through the night in his expensive car … [with his daughter and] his "best friend" Henri, a poet, lover to the businessman's wife and daughter…. While the seconds tick away, "ivory beads on a black thread," and the three hurtle towards the point the driver has selected for a moment of "private apocalypse," the businessman attempts to draw his two unwilling participants into the poetry and eroticism of the approaching suicide. "Yes, dead passion is the most satisfying, cher ami, you have hinted as much in your work."
The night's action is a parody of poetry, of the poet Henri and his "cruel detachment." With an arch condescension ("You are not a very good poet") the businessman reminds his friend of earlier rhetoric, "Telling the audience that the poet is always a betrayer, a murderer, and that the writing of poetry is like a descent into death. But that was talk. Mere talk." The joke of taking the poet at his word, making his "very deed of love" (to quote Shakespeare) come true even while the cuckolded husband flashes his anger, jealousy and despair, keeps the story moving with an insane cheerfulness. (p. H1)
While the driver spins out the implications of his bizarre metaphor—murder as love—his language mesmerizes his two partners, bearing out his contention that, "every more or less privileged person contains within himself the seeds of a poet."…
Is murder then the way of completing yet another logical threesome: the businessman, his daughter and his best friend? Or is it finally the best "travesty" of love?…
In this short space one can not give an adequate guide to the riddles of the story, for each is hidden within the other, but the pleasure of searching them out will give you the measure of John Hawkes. Is travesty the only way of quickening love once the "fires of youth" have died away? Is the deliberate contemplation of death the best means to feel one exists? Is suicide, finally, the most affirming act possible to life? John Hawkes has revived Stoic and Epicurean points of view and given to his narrator a voice as malevolent as Iago. It is wicked and funny. The riddles of Travesty are the questions of the most sophisticated of citizens in a dark, malicious moment. (p. H5)
Mark J. Mirsky, "Driving to Despair," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 7, 1976, pp. H1, H5.
[Despite] the strictures of … negative and quite limited stances, The Blood Oranges is an intensely moral and beautifully lyrical novel, indebted to Plato, the Bible, medieval flower symbology, Milton, and Wallace Stevens, as well as, more obviously, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Ford's The Good Soldier. Furthermore, Hawkes' intention is nothing less than to create a "new" morality to supplant the outworn asexuality of a moribund Christianity.
To understand Hawkes' vision, one must … observe the various modulations of tone and imagery, and speculate about their meanings within the context of the whole novel. The Blood Oranges is composed of forty-two scenes related thematically and imagistically, plotted according to Hawkes' inner vision. (pp. 5-6)
The Blood Oranges is an "elaborately structured" novel whose major concern is the imaginative creation of a new moral order…. The Blood Oranges uses Christian images to elaborate its message. In many instances, however, Hawkes has reversed the common meanings of these images and has added analogues from mythology and from a number of works in Western literary history. If the narrator of Ford's The Good Soldier represents the end of the road in his failure to combine aesthetics and sensuality, then Hawkes' narrator, Cyril, and his mask, Hugh, represent, both imagistically and structurally, a new way, a movement to the high ground of beauty and desire. (p. 22)
John V. Knapp, "Hawkes' 'The Blood Oranges': A Sensual New Jerusalem," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1976), Volume XVII, Number 3, 1976, pp. 5-25.
John Hawkes has spent most of his adult life probing the "psychic sores" of his grotesque characters. Beginning with Charivari and The Cannibal in 1949, he has combined experimental technique with narratives of extraordinary pain and violence to expose the murky interiors of what many people call "reality." Yet despite the shocking images, the revelations of pain, and the investigations of ugliness and failure, Hawkes has always considered himself a comic novelist. (p. 26)
Death, Sleep & the Traveler is not as difficult nor as compelling as The Cannibal (1949), The Beetle Leg (1951), or The Lime Twig (1961), but it is far from a wispy exercise. Hawkes may be turning away from the comic delights of parody and strange laughter, but his latest novel is not a completely new departure. Rather than divorce himself from his earlier work, he has re-entered the dream world of Michael and Margaret Banks in The Lime Twig. In that generally acclaimed novel, the Bankses cross the line between reality and dream in search of sexual fulfillment, only to be smashed within the dream following an orgy beyond their wildest fantasies. Yet that violently comic novel ends affirmatively, for with his sacrificial death, Michael Banks redeems his life and brings down the dream world. In Death, Sleep & the Traveler, Allert Vanderveenan similarly pursues sexual fulfillment to the netherworld of dreams. Rather than emulate Michael, who realizes his error and tries to surface, Allert elects to remain within the dream where sex and death unite. His prospects—and the novel itself—are especially grim. (pp. 27-8)
In its evocation of sexuality, Death, Sleep & the Traveler is Hawkes' most erotic novel. One reviewer calls it "steamy," and certain scenes … seem designed to stimulate fantasy without resorting to explicit description. Yet unlike the union of sex and regeneration which is found in Second Skin and attempted in The Blood Oranges, Allert's sexual fantasies veer toward derangement, exposing his onanism and culminating in death. (p. 31)
Though the creator of dozens of grotesque, violence-prone characters, Hawkes has always encouraged the reader's sympathy for psychically maimed, often bewildered people. In most of his novels, the identification of victim and victimizer is so complete that the reader sympathizes with both simultaneously. Indeed, Hawkes argues that "this special sympathy for decay, deterioration, destruction (and for the maimed, the victimized) is one of the essential qualities of the imagination." In the past, he has used what he calls "extreme fictive detachment," reader identification with the prevailing point of view, and comedy to generate such sympathy.
Death, Sleep & the Traveler is an unusual addition to his canon because it does not have the often outrageous tone of humor usually associated with novels as violent as The Cannibal and Second Skin. Though Hawkes remains completely detached from the wanderings of Allert's psyche, and though he again uses the first-person point of view to narrow the distance between reader and narrator and thus encourage sympathy, he has turned from comic terror to terror in his latest fiction. Sympathy is maintained, despite the reader's revulsion at witnessing Allert's violent dreams, because one naturally feels for a character so completely unable to determine his identity. Yet terror tempered by comedy is somehow less stark than terror standing alone. Since pure terror finally denies us the humanizing gesture of laughter, Death, Sleep & the Traveler is closer to The Blood Oranges than to Second Skin, and probably closest of all to the grim, though funny, earlier The Beetle Leg and The Owl (1954). (p. 37)
Donald J. Greiner, "'Death, Sleep & the Traveler': John Hawkes' Return to Terror," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1976), Vol. XVII, No. 3, pp. 26-38.
The underlying theme of [Death, Sleep & the Traveler] is the one [Hawkes] has been dramatizing for the past twenty-five years: the conflict between the rational, judgmental ego and the irrational, imaginative id of our culture-repressed unconscious. Death, Sleep & the Traveler tells the story of two triangles, and the pivotal point and narrator of both is Allert. Although he does not recount events as they happened, a chronology is discernible. (pp. 39-40)
Hawkes' familiar equation of violent assertion and self-realization occurs again … in Death, Sleep & the Traveler. Repeatedly, he has dramatized the conflict between man's instinctual needs and the repressive customs and conventions of our civilization, showing it to be a battle of life and death. In each of Hawkes' earlier works, as in the present one, his characters either live out their private and sexually aggressive impulses by using conventional public institutions as a pretext for preying on their fellow citizens or, falling prey to victimizers of one kind or another, retreat into fantasy or death. (p. 50)
Hawkes' strained mannerisms, already apparent in The Blood Oranges, have increased in his latest novel; though Allert's story is more than a neat symbolistic puzzle in which systems of images represent particular groups of ideas, the question remains whether or not it is worthwhile reading the book several times to find out exactly what corresponds with what. Nevertheless, Death, Sleep & the Traveler contains numerous examples of Hawkes' polished cadences of speech, his stylistic virtuosity, his ability to create the peculiar mood and atmosphere of scenes and dreams in congealed time. It also contains haunting scenes which linger in our minds … [and such] scenes haunt us not only because of their stylistic power but because in them we find a compelling image of the twentieth-century man who, bruised by reality, can find solace only in his imagination. (pp. 51-2)
Elisabeth Kraus, "Psychic Sores in Search of Compassion: Hawkes' 'Death, Sleep & the Traveler'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1976,) Vol. XVII, No. 3, pp. 39-52.