John Hawkes Hawkes, John (Vol. 4)

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Hawkes, John (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hawkes, John 1925–

Hawkes is a masterful American experimental novelist whose nightmare-fiction exhibits what one critic called "a death-haunted vision." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

A surrealist evocation of European despair …, [The Cannibal] is so irrevocably dominated by … enormities that it remains a remote and terrible fantasy, without any of the profound significance of Kafka's fiction….

The Cannibal (1949) is a testimony to a small but persistent struggle on the part of recent novelists to break away from the naturalist impasse. It is in a sense a part of the struggle against naturalism; naturalistic only in its surface details, it depends upon such poignant accuracy of particulars for the ground of its persuasion. Its secret lies elsewhere…. [It] cuts through both document and discourse, to reach another and symbolic level of meaning.

Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Henry Regnery, revised edition, 1963, pp. 198-99.

Each of John Hawkes's impressively dislocated novels has a different nominal locale, yet they all seem to take place in the same timeless decayed and decaying no-land. Hawkes's surreal world is deliberately out of focus, blurred over by a fog of ugly images which we experience vaguely and unpleasantly, like, as his admirers assert, an actual nightmare. Hawkes is something of a naturalist in reverse; where the naturalist gives us the detailed surface of everyday squalid existence, Hawkes gives us with his own psychoanalytic verisimilitude the blurred surface of the workaday evil dream. His work is prescriptively contemporary, related on the one hand to the nightmare world of Flannery O'Connor and on the other to the antinovels of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet; for all the brilliances of Hawkes's style, the novels seem so many eccentric exercises—an extraordinary game superbly played, but a game nevertheless.

Jonathan Baumbach, in the "Introduction" to his The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1965 by New York University), New York University Press, 1965, p. 5.

"Lunar Landscapes" makes accessible for the first time several hard-to-get Hawkes' items, including six short pieces and all three of Hawkes' novellas. "Charivari," published in 1950, now seems mannered and dated. The story of an aging married couple terrified by the prospect of a child, "Charivari," Hawkes' first work, is a brittle exhibition of technical prowess. "The Owl" and "The Goose on the Grave" (1954) are much fuller and more resonant. "The Owl" is narrated by a Hangman who makes a sacrament of his executions, and "The Goose on the Grave" is an account of an orphan's search for a father in an Italy devastated by war. Both are distinguished by a beauty and precision of language, an uncanny evocation of terror, an intensity of vision as disturbing as a nightmare. No writer in America is more scrupulous, or ruthless, than Hawkes, and none has given us fictions of greater imaginative purity and power. The fictions in "Lunar Landscapes" do not report on experience but provide an experience.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Autumn, 1969), p. cxxviii.

[In his plays,] Hawkes works largely by nuance, suggesting more than he defines, hoping, I suppose, to infect the audience with a sense of uneasiness or dis-ease (with and without the hyphen). The world of his plays, like that of his novels, is one of matter-of-fact grotesqueness in which blood and lust are staples ("Blood and ecstasy, that's the ticket," says Bingo in The Wax Museum) and innocence is forever menaced—mainly by its own innate corruption. At one pole—The Questions—his work suggests Harold Pinter; at the other—The Wax Museum—it suggests Grand Guignol, devised for a theater that has not got around to buying its bloodmaking machine. The action is minimal; the play, in Hawkes, is largely verbal….

The best of the plays is The Questions

(The entire section is 7,023 words.)