Last Updated on June 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568
Hawkes, John 1925–
American novelist, author of The Lime Twig and The Cannibal. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Astonishing sympathy, satanic humor, cold detachment: these playful postures best describe the experimental fiction of John Hawkes, who "finds both wit and blackness in the pit."… Hawkes happens to be a rebel in the present spectrum of modern literature. It could hardly be otherwise. And certainly it is gratifying to read his highly original and difficult prose in this period when too much of our fiction seems smoothly tailored for a specific market, or audience. Perhaps it is much to his credit that Hawkes would seem out of place, really too disturbing, in The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy or Atlantic Monthly—no matter how nearly acceptable his flamboyant grotesque and vision of terror.
While it is true that Hawkes writes like, sounds like, no one else at all, it is equally true that his fiction "shares a birthmark," as he puts it, with a body of writing that might arbitrarily be represented by authors such as Faulkner, Kafka, Conrad, Lautréamont, Djuna Barnes, Flannery O'Connor, Nathanael West and Kraft-Ebbing. His pure creative energy, mordant and mundane has the effortless sting and bite of these authors and their names come readily to mind when one discusses Hawkes.
But to talk of his fiction merely by relating it to another body of writing is to dismiss his consistent and truly original talents…. His fictions are totally refined abstractions, clear enigmas poised in brilliant rhetoric, evoking the inexorable, unhurried and deliberate touch of terror….
One sees clearly his refusal to recognize, or abide, the rational consciousness in his fondness for withholding narrative information and in his habit of shuffling ordered events in time. He throws the map-hungry reader delicious bits of abusive, brilliant detail and will for pages toss out the false scents that send readers stumbling past his true authorial intentions like a shipwreck chasing his own footprints. His rigid consistency of tone and language leaves readers panting, breathless and dismayed…. His comic treatment of violence, extreme detachment and crackling satire—thoughtful horrors driven through tangles of complex distortions—all combine to unsettle his reader, making him dependent on the author as a guide in this contrary and confusing landscape. Like Faulkner, Hawkes can gracefully subjugate his reader, and in this delightful violation of a reader's conventional trust is a measure of perverse satisfaction such as a Faulkner or a Flaubert must have enjoyed….
Flannery O'Connor has said that one "suffers [The Lime Twig] like a dream." This is true of each of Hawkes's novels. His narratives move with the pace and color of a dream. Something in the dream reassures us; something either draws us on or repels us. Attraction or repulsion: these two violent reactions become suddenly mixed in the narrative as Hawkes writes it.
S. K. Oberbeck, "John Hawkes: The Smile Slashed By a Razor" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 193-204.
Since the publication of Second Skin in 1964, John Hawkes' fiction has generated an increasing amount of critical commentary. As with his earlier work, Second Skin was immediately grouped under that vague catchall, "black humor." But as this novel continues to attract increased numbers of students interested in modern fiction, readers have begun to heed a protest which Hawkes has been making for years—that problems of structure fascinate him as much as or more than the interest in black humor. Too often hostile readers have zeroed in on the bleakness of Hawkes' comedy, charging that the terrifying incidents are isolated and unrelated to the overall structure of the novels. Nearly all of the reviews which greeted Second Skin mention the shifting narrative, the unconventional characters, and the dire events that pursue the characters to their mutilation or death. Observations of this sort have made up the core of Hawkes criticism since the publication of The Cannibal in 1949 because Hawkes is viewed as a leading figure in the latest surge of the grotesque in the contemporary American novel. In other words, Hawkes' gothic vision, rather than his style and structure, has preoccupied his serious readers. Yet structure often holds the key to his difficult fiction. By "structure" I mean those images, events, and verbal patterns which point to the internal coherence of the novel. Structure in Hawkes' work is based upon cross-references, parallels, and contrasts, rather than upon the development of plot and character. It is this technique that enriches the nightmarish overtones of the novels and gives them their poetic quality….
Second Skin has been attacked as a difficult, incoherent, and unstructured novel, but only because readers have missed the signposts which Hawkes has created to help chart their progress in following Skipper's journey to the wandering island. He demands readers who are willing to discover and delight in the dislocated structural patterns and carry them gingerly through the reading experience until they fall into place. The patterns of recurring imagery and the cross-references that order this remarkable novel have their foundations in color, and the intricacy with which Hawkes puts color to work testifies to the care he takes to help the reader grasp the shifting narrative, the unconventional characters, and the thematic suggestions of each grotesque event.
Donald J. Greiner, "The Thematic Use of Color in John Hawkes' Second Skin," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 389-400.
When reading a novel by John Hawkes we become trapped in a very odd world. The land is menacing and unearthly. We are not quite sure what to make of it. It is modern yet primitive, somewhat familiar yet not completely within our grasp. We read on, hoping to come upon more recognizable features. The details accumulate, but they do not help us. Rather than add to our knowledge, they heighten the mystery, and further our disorientation. The few people who populate Hawkes's world seem to casually accept not only its weird landscapes but also its puzzling logic. They are not terribly phased by sudden horror and violence. They journey through their world as they would through a dream—momentarily shaken by terrifying incidents, but quick to recover, as if confident they can awaken from the nightmare any time they wish….
Hawkes may be more than a bit self-indulgent, but he can still produce nightmares of the very first order. He remains a unique talent in American fiction.
Ronald De Feo, in Saturday Review, October 23, 1971, pp. 92, 94.
Second Skin resembles The Lime Twig in its form. Both works are structured by Hawkes for a "psychological coherence." They consist primarily of dreamlike scenes or visualizations which are repeated in their varied forms until Hawkes' view of man's psychic world is completed. As readers, we may well tend to feel the scenes grow in intensity in each novel. On closer examination, however, we will probably agree this is not the case…. What in fact happens is that, as we work from sequence to sequence, we become more aware of the associations we are encountering in each. When we arrive at the novel's end, our education is complete. The meaning of the scenes, taken together, is quite clear. Through this method, Hawkes is able to retain a sense of closeness to the distortions of his psychic world and still make obvious to us, or "throw into new light," the potentials of that world. He succeeds in bringing conscious structure to his essentially unconscious material.
John C. Stubbs, "John Hawkes and the Dream-Work of The Lime Twig and Second Skin," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXI, No. 3, 1971, pp. 149-60.
[Reading] The Blood Oranges is like sinking ever deeper into a warm, damp bunch of highly-scented flowers Very sensuous, very lyrical but with no thorns on the roses. And there should be.
Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1971, p. 64.
With Hawkes, I confess, I am never very sure what is expected of me. I can play myth games if the occasion demands (the publicity releases and the jacket copy [for The Blood Oranges] seem to take the whole thing seriously) and if Hawkes insists (he sometimes does, as a few of the stage directions of his play indicate), but I cannot help feel that in this case the myth-maker is the butt of the joke.
Gerald Weales, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1971–72, p. 729.
If you wish to understand John Hawkes, a painter friend once told me, think of Brueghel. It was all my friend had to say on the subject but it was enough. Almost immediately the Hawkes' novel I was then reading snapped into focus: the quick scenes, the small characters, non-existent psychology, might-makes-right morality, the plot that was no plot at all but a kind of rhythm or dance. It seemed that all these effects were the result of a certain medieval distance, of a certain kind of hovering point-of-view that is one of the trademarks of the great Flemish painter. And this insight led to another; that, as with Brueghel, there is a beauty in this terrible world, a beauty the painter expresses in color and that Hawkes is able to do through description, his ability to describe painfully vivid scenes and, at certain moments, even to share that ability with his characters.
Earl Ganz, in Mediterranean Review, Winter, 1972, p. 42.
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