John Hawkes Hawkes, John (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 outlines and defines life as a surrealistic, often terrifying, dream world. Hawkes has said that his novels attempt 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, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev, ed.)

Marc Ratner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 near the site of a dam. The dry season and the figure of the fisherman at the dam are not unfamiliar images from T. S. Eliot's Waste Land. Beyond these, Hawkes's concept of the buried Christ-Osiris in the slowly sliding wall of the dam ("the sarcophagus of mud") is a prime example of his mythopoesis. The imperceptible movement of the retaining wall becomes the inevitable force and movement of the universe and the small absurd heroes, whether their activity is directed towards the wall or the fields, below, cannot check the cosmic flux. (pp. 346-47)

Images of sacrifice, particularly horses and chickens, occur as a motif and the elaborations on the theme of the buried fertility god are skillfully worked into the novel. These recognizable myths are combined with Hawkes's own creations…. (p. 347)

Hawkes returned to a European locale in his next works, The Owl and The Goose on the Grave (1954). These complementary novellas set in Italy, have received more adverse criticism than his other fiction, mostly because they rely more on religious imagery and historical fact than on characterization. The ritual sacrifice of the prisoner proscribed by the hangman-dictator of the principality of Sasso Fetore reenacts the death of Christ. But the sacrifice is of a human being, not a god…. While the religious symbolism of the sacrificed geese on the prisoner's grave and the image of the destroyed Madonna link the two novellas, the second novella is more concerned with the end of innocence…. Following a more direct narrative line and using [a] dream as a basis for connecting incidents, Hawkes indicates here the changes in method apparent in … The Lime Twig (1961). This novel fulfills the prediction of Albert Guerard in the introduction to The Cannibal that "Hawkes will move still further toward realism." Along with a closer adherence to a chronological development, Hawkes has shifted gears in his use of time. Instead of scanning the cultural history in the context of the everpresent past, Hawkes in a method slightly similar to Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute arrests time to present a situation through the emotional, irrational acts or gestures of his characters. What Hawkes does in The Lime Twig is to present us with his superreal characters, victims of the ironic mesh of human affairs…. The Lime Twig finds Hawkes's technique directed more towards characterization, although his view of man as victim has not changed.

Hawkes's technique is that of...

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James L. Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like the typical fairy tale "Charivari" is a nightmare with a happy ending. However, the happy ending of fairy tale denies nightmare, preserves childhood innocence; the happy ending of "Charivari" is ironic, undercutting the false security of dream, affirming the reality of nightmare. (p. 83)

Charivari denotes "a serenade of 'rough music,' with kettles, pans, tea-trays, and the like, used … in mockery and derision of incongrous or unpopular marriages" (OED). "Charivari" is a satiric epithalamion to the marriage of Henry and Emily Van, two forty-year old children. Provided with money and a country estate by their parents, Henry and Emily have played house for fourteen years, though both subconsciously desire to break out of their fairy-tale world of parties and games. Henry has a nightmare in which he views Emily with a child. The next day during one of their parties, Emily announces her pregnancy. The news is terrifying because the birth of a child will force the couple to acknowledge their age, to accept time and the inevitability of death. Henry flees, a runaway child, but is found and brought back by his father. In a parallel action Emily is taken by her mother to a doctor, who finds that the pregnancy is hysterical. Returned home, Emily again appears youthful, and the children resume their games. This marriage is Hawkes' microcosm for twentieth-century Western society, affluent, hedonistic, committed to the preservation of youth and to the establishment of paradise on earth. Henry's nightmare and Emily's hallucination correspond to nightmare realities in Western civilization—to world war, which is the result of, and a threat to, utopian social and political dreams. Henry and Emily's parents, representatives of the Victorian age, are immediately responsible for their children's marriage, for the world in which Henry and Emily live. Hawkes implies that these parents were victimized by their own parents, and so on back through history. Ultimately, both dream and nightmare are grounded in man's existential condition. Life evokes in man the desire for eternal life, but man is also condemned by nature to death. Attempting to deny or escape his human condition, man has created systems of order, which in denying death, deny life as well. (pp. 83-4)

Hawkes' concern with the recurrence of nightmare and the recurrence of equally destructive dreams is reflected in his fictional technique…. "Charivari" is divided into four sections: "Courtship," "The Bachelors," "The Wedding," and "Rhythm." The story telescopes two...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)