John Hawkes Hawkes, John (Vol. 15) - 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 delineates life as a surrealistic, often terrifying, dream world. Hawkes himself has said that his novels are attempts 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, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Robert Scholes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Owl originally appeared in 1954, in a double volume with another short novel, also set in Italy, called The Goose on the Grave. That these two works are of unequal quality has become increasingly apparent over the years. The Goose on the Grave suffers from a murky atmosphere, a lack of focus and coherence, as if indeed it were written by someone who felt (as Hawkes has claimed to feel) that plot, character, setting, and theme are the worst enemies of the novel. The Owl is altogether different. It is tightly organized. It is strong precisely in plot, character, setting, and theme. (p. 2)

The Owl is one of the very best of Hawkes' fictions, and probably the best introduction to his work. His method has always been to work with strong images that can be developed into scenes of nightmarish power and vividness, and then to seek some means of connecting these scenes in a coherent and developmental way. Because he starts with images rather than with a story, his work is different from conventionally plotted fiction, though this is not the same thing as being without plot altogether. Over the years, as his work has developed, he has turned more and more to the unifying voice of a single narrator as a way of giving coherence to the events of his narrative. At the same time, his fiction, which began with an emphasis on terror, violence, and death, has moved from those horrors toward a lush eroticism, initiated in the closing section of Second Skin and continued in The Blood Oranges and Death, Sleep and the Traveller. Even Travesty, which moves toward death, draws most of its strength from its slightly over-ripe eroticism—what the French, in speaking of the decadence that brings the grapes of Sauternes to their highest pitch of sweetness, call la pourriture noble.

The Owl is about rottenness, also, but there is no suggestion in it of what Walter Pater liked to call "a sweet and comely decadence." Only the narrator of the book finds anything sweet and comely in his world, and he is clearly a monster. He is, in fact, the epitome of fascism, at once hangman and dictator, ruling over a decaying little world with absolute and terrible authority. The Owl is an imaginative probe into the heart of Italian fascism, with its deep roots in Imperial Rome and the Roman Catholic church. The novel is localized and historicized, as is much of Hawkes's best work, especially his early novels. The England of The Lime Twig (1961), the American West of The Beetle Leg (1951), the Germany of The Cannibal (1949), and the Italy of The Owl (1954) are imaginative settings, to be sure, rather than documentaries of social realities. But they are attempts to reach a kind of depth, a kind of truth about human experience, which is based on historical and cultural processes. The narrator of The Owl is as much connected to a particular heritage as the speaker of Browning's "My Last Duchess" though he is not so precisely located in time and space. It is relevant to think of Browning here, for Hawkes has come to specialize in the extended dramatic monologue. Like Browning, he is drawn to the strange and the perverse, and he delights in immersing his readers in the voice and vision of a character whose consciousness is disturbing to "normal" sensibilities. The...

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Ronald Wallace

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is sometimes dangerous to trust an author's comments on his own work, but it is sometimes equally dangerous not to trust him. Schooled in the "intentional fallacy," and wary of authorial pronouncements, modern readers are reluctant to accept uncritically even comments which are accurate and illuminating. Such is the case with John Hawkes. In interviews and essays Hawkes insists that critics have over-emphasized the terror and violence of his novels while underemphasizing their comic form and vision. Thus one of his basic concerns in Second Skin was to clarify the general comic intentions in his writing…. [Hawkes defines] his comic method. "I think that the comic method functions in several ways; on the one hand it serves to create sympathy, compassion, and on the other it's a means for judging human failings as severely as possible." (p. 169)

The reader's reluctance to accept an author's interpretation of his own work extends to Skipper as well as to Hawkes. As author of Second Skin Skipper is just as potentially unreliable, and if critics have ignored Hawkes's conclusions about his novel, they have actively disbelieved Skipper's conclusions about himself. Grasping the fashionable critical handle of "unreliable narrator," critics like [Thomas] LeClair and [John] Kuehl argue that Skipper is a villain, lying to himself and the reader. In some cases, certainly, Skipper is unreliable. One of the major functions of comedy, as Hawkes notes, is ironic exposure of character and society. But Skipper is often reliable as well. The problem with comedy is to maintain the necessary ambivalence of attitude. Dale Underwood's description of the comic hero illuminates Hawkes's attitude toward Skipper:

It is an essential of the comic hero that he have this ambivalence. His attitudes and actions serve, on the one hand, to criticize his society; but they serve on the other to criticize himself. If they do only the former, the character is not comic; if they do only the latter, he is no hero. As an aspect of his ambivalence of character his wit, if he has any, will also be ambivalent. It may sometimes operate to minify his society and then we laugh with him. Or it may serve to minify him—and then we laugh at him. Or it may simultaneously do both, and then the comic complexity and force of both character and language is at its peak.

The definition fits Skipper rather closely. He is comic in his self-exposure—his innocence, his limited perceptual and analytic powers, his unconscious contributions to his own problems; he is a hero in his exposure of his humorous society and in his reflection of the comic values—life, peace, integration, grace, and love. An appreciation of the comedy of the book, and particularly Skipper's role as comic hero, is necessary to a valid interpretation.

From the outset Skipper takes his place in a recognizable comic tradition. He is the comic innocent, the fool or buffoon, who seems constitutionally immune to knowledge. The characters from comic literature whom Skipper most closely resembles are the child-victims of Dickens, James, or Joyce. (pp. 170-71)

Children's innocent perceptions and responses to the adult world are comic in themselves as Dickens, James, and Joyce knew, but in Skipper's case the comedy is intensified by the incongruity between his childish responses and his two-hundred-pound frame, his naval background, and his age. Skipper is too old, and as a navy man should be too experienced, to have retained such innocence. (p. 171)

Like the children in this comic tradition Skipper is exposed to one violent attack after another. Indeed, the piling up of violence itself reflects the exaggeration typical of comedy…. Throughout the novel numerous knives, lizards, snakes, needles, and missiles lacerate, puncture, smash, rip, and otherwise violate Skipper's sensitive skin. And yet, like the fool or clown of traditional comedy, Skipper is resilient, always seeming to recover essentially unharmed. His recoveries fill him with pride, for he is a willing victim, a parodic Christ figure, who is happy to "neutralize" the world's "poison" with his own suffering…. Indeed, Skipper consistently gives the impression that he would not be completely happy if he were not allowed to suffer "heroically." While this attitude elicits admiration from the reader, it elicits ridicule as well…. By having Skipper dwell on his numerous affronts with such curious pleasure, Hawkes may be satirizing the modern pose of despair and anguish. Sympathy and ridicule are thus carefully balanced in Skipper's affirmation of his suffering.

Skipper, then, closely resembles the child-victims of earlier comedy, and the discrepancy between his innocence and his age is doubly comic. Further, Skipper's innocence repeatedly results in his humorous misinterpretation of serious events. In his effort to neutralize the world's poison with his own suffering, Skipper often invents absurd enemies while remaining ignorant of real evil. In six structurally parallel scenes, Skipper's comic misinterpretation exposes the dangers of his innocence. (p. 172)

The pattern is the same in nearly every case. Faced with real evil and an obvious tangible source of suffering, Skipper imagines other and absurd possibilities, feeling relief when those fears prove illusory. The repetitive doubling of scenes intensifies Skipper's comic exposure.

Skipper's innocent misinterpretation of events results in a kind of paralysis or inaction on his part. While claiming to be courageous, he evidences what appears to be inertia at crucial moments when action might seem advisable. Two scenes in particular illustrate Skipper's comic inaction—the bus wreck and the mutiny. In both cases Skipper thinks about conventional heroism but remains unconventionally passive while the violence coalesces around him. (p. 174)

Although Skipper's innocence, his misinterpretation of events, and his inaction seem comically discrepant with his avowed heroism, his childlike response assures a measure or reader indulgence and sympathy. But innocence is often dangerously close to ignorance, a fact which Henry James and Jane Austen exploited in their comedies of manners, and Skipper's ignorance of evil seems itself sometimes evil. When Emma Woodhouse and Isabel Archer, for example, wield their naiveté and innocence like a sword, Austen and James comically expose them. Similarly, when Skipper's aggressive innocence makes him an "accomplice" to the evil forces around him, Hawkes exploits the comedy. According to Hawkes, while comedy serves "to create sympathy, compassion," it is also a means "for judging human failings as severely as possible; it's a way of exposing evil (one of the pure words I mean to preserve) and of persuading the reader that even he may not be exempt from evil." Like the other characters in this comic tradition, Skipper is not exempt from evil, and Hawkes exposes his pretensions to exemption.

Skipper seems most culpable in his ludicrous...

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Josephine Hendin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Konrad Vost, hero of "The Passion Artist," continues Hawkes's fictional interest in relations between the sexes. Vost's artistry in passion is his ability to walk a thin line between desire and frustration. His erotic passivity and anger are counterweights, each checking the pull of the other from giving in or letting go. (p. 7)

Hawkes seems fascinated by ambivalence as a deadlock between passivity and violence. When Vost permits a young prostitute to beckon him out of his six-year sexual fast, his rage flows with his orgasm. When female prisoners revolt against their guards, he joins the guards, beating the most fragile women the most violently. These events suggest large meanings: Men seem drawn to...

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Edward R. Stephenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Passion Artist is a startling, erotic, terrifyingly honest and stylistically lush achievement, the kind of novel his readers have come to expect from John Hawkes. Once again, Hawkes focuses upon a "traveler," here a "stationary traveler," one Konrad Vost, the typical Hawkes male: the searching self, questing for meaning as defined by his relationships with the several significant women in his life. (p. 278)

Vost's most important journey … focuses upon his attempt to come to grips with his past as an only (apparently) unwanted child. We watch as this "disordered," sensitive "little trumpeter" undergoes various sexual encounters, For him, the past—his insomniac father, his homicidal mother, his lusty, brutal guardian—all that "which is gone" can be summarized by "Shame and grief. Shame and grief."

But Vost knows moments of triumph as well. He can achieve the level of the "passion artist," though, as the novel's second epigraph suggests, the expression of that achievement is as difficult for Konrad Vost as it is for Kafka's "hunger artist." Vost finally knows that experience which makes every man an "artist": "willed erotic union."

Konrad Vost is ludicrous, pathetic, frightening, absurd, self-assured and timid. He is at once sacrificial victim and victimizer. He is Hawkes's most important and successful character since Skipper (Second Skin).

Hawkes has lost none of his ability to overawe stylistically. His descriptive technique and imagistic counterpointing are remarkably effective.

The Passion Artist is a first-rate achievement. (pp. 278-79)

Edward R. Stephenson, "Fiction: 'The Passion Artist'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 39, No. 8, November, 1979, pp. 278-79.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The novelist's first allegiance is to his art, but it's impossible for me to think of fiction without a moral center. Mine is Conradian. My work is an effort to expose the worst in us all, to cause us to face up to the enormities of our terrible potential for betrayal, disgrace, and criminal behavior. I think that it is necessary to destroy repression while showing at the same time that the imagination is unlimited….

The work that is deeply and truly moral violates conventional morality. The writer who sets out to create his own world in a sense defies the world around him. He has to become an outcast, an outsider. He works in isolation to create something which to him is a thing of beauty, as well...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Albert J. Guerard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The preoccupation with sexual anxiety and impotence may mislead readers into seeing The Passion Artist as a continuation of Hawkes's trilogy: Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep and the Traveler, Travesty. But the new novel has little of their sinuous, suave, playful sophistication, and very few moments of perverse bliss. It represents, rather, an altogether conscious and very powerful return, after 30 years, to the bleak, devastated fictive world and the psychic cripplings of The Cannibal.

[The] pervasive misogyny is that of an intense, dynamic authorial imagination, and it is even more explicit than Faulkner's. The Passion Artist is, whatever its deficiencies, a serious work of...

(The entire section is 602 words.)