First published: 1961
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Psychological surrealism
Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century
Locale: Somewhere in England
Sidney Slyter, a columnist
William Hencher, a Londoner
Michael Banks, his friend
Margaret Banks, Michael's wife
Rock Castle, a horse
Jimmy Needles, a jockey
Lovely, a stableboy
Thick, a thug
Little Dora, his wife
Sybilline, a moll
Annie, the Bankses' neighbor
John Hawkes is a novelist of great originality and abrasive power whose intensely personal vision reveals the painfulness and absurdity of so much experience in the modern world that seems filled with violence, frustration, and lovelessness. His books, experimental in technique, belong to a modern genre of the grotesque and the absurd.
Experiment as it was manifested in the 1920's has been tempered into the conventions of good craftsmanship, and no complaint against this healthy level of art and intelligence on which many later novelists' work should be registered; the whole point of literary revolution is to create a new and consistent order. At any time, a young novelist may appear who forces the reader, almost against his will, to revise his mode of apprehending experience. Such a novelist is Hawkes, who is certainly not without a full share of art and intelligence, but who exercises these faculties to create a special mirror of life which startles readers by the absolute clarity with which it reflects the distortions of dignity and decency in the life of man. Hawkes does not attempt to resolve or explain these distortions; he renders them truly. They convey that sense of unreality which is one of the realities of modern life.
Hawkes is not without his kinships and predecessors. He is in direct descent from the Gothic visions of Poe, whose imp of the perverse perched also upon the shoulder of Hawkes's contemporary, Flannery O'Connor. Among English writers, one might look back to William Beckford or, updating the comparison, to some of the earlier works of Graham Greene, particularly BRIGHTON ROCK. Hawkes goes beyond any of these, however, in his coolly composed delineation of mundane terror. His perception of psychological experience grows organically from the clinical documentation provided by modern psychiatry; much of his imagery derives clearly from the painting and poetry of the Surrealists; the atmosphere in which his story takes place is a compounding of the elements of Gothic atmosphere and wasteland terrain; and the motivation of his characters is rooted in the despair and absurdity which are so much a part of the modern temper. In Hawkes's work, the traditional and the experimental, the typical and the unique, the natural and the monstrously grotesque are all fused in a vision of verifiable mid-century experience.
Developing a technique suitable for his purpose had been Hawkes's creative problem. Some of the earlier books projected complexity in such a way as only to cause difficulty for his readers. THE LIME TWIG , Hawkes's fifth novel, though still full of pitfalls for the unwary, is remarkable for the clarity of its outline and the accessibility of its substance. One device is a kind of choric newspaper column which appears at the beginning of each chapter. Written by a gaily inquisitive reporter by the name of Sidney Slyter, the column serves to provide narrative continuity, to establish a distance wherefrom to observe the events in the tortured lives of the characters, to suggest a moral norm, to offset with levity the horror felt at the center of things, and to disjoint...
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the element of time in the manner that readers are normally made aware of things—by piecing together fragments of cause and effect.
The rest of the book is developed in scenes that range in mood from the tenderly pathetic to the sardonic, from the merely confused to the phantasmagorical, from the depressing to the overwhelmingly outrageous. Many of the episodes have the weird and memorable quality of frightful dreams from which one awakes to find that he has been awake all the time. Others leave the reader bemused with his recognition of the inevitably absurd complexion on the face of serious situation. All the episodes are informed with sympathy but are projected with a feeling of utter helplessness.
The central character of the first part of the book is William Hencher, a denizen of London's East End who returns sometime after the war to the tenement flat in Violet Lane near Dreary Station where he had lovingly endured the blitz with his slatternly mother, now to find Michael Banks and his wife Margaret as occupants. Hencher takes up his abode with these people and quickly transfers to them a love so intense as to be a kind of fetishism. Together, partly in exploitation of this love, they hatch a plot to steal a famous racehorse which, under a new name, will win their fortune. The theft is successfully executed, though Hencher is promptly trampled to death within the first moments of illicit stabling.
His confederate Banks proceeds with indifference, but like John Donne's Death soon becomes "slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And [does] with poison, war, and sickness dwell." That is to say, he is surrounded by a gang of professional crooks who stop at nothing to achieve their ends or to satisfy their egos. There follows one fantastically lurid and terrifying scene after the other. Banks temporarily deserts his wife, eventually is seduced to play the stud to a disdainful but strong-willed arch-moll Sybilline, seeks solace from Annie, who is an old neighbor from Violet Lane, is subjected to cruel threatenings from the gang, and at the end, when he sees into the heart of darkness, makes a desperate bid for redemption which is answered by the deadly thunder of racing hooves upon his skull.
Meanwhile his wife, Margaret, suffers in her desolation of love, then pursues him to the Aldington track, but on the train is kidnapped by a traveling companion named Little Dora, who with Thick, her husband, keeps Margaret a hostage—even after she is beaten to death.
Apocalyptic visions of clothed assassins dripping at their grisly work in a Turkish bath, of the agony of a dope addict receiving his fix in the presence of curious but cold-blooded observers, or of a silver horse being hoisted ashore by a winch while the barge is scuttled in the oily murk—such visions complete the fabric of the book. It must be emphasized that these materials are not presented for the sake of sensation, but that such sensations are effected for the sake of meaning. The novel is moving precisely because the reader does not look on the horror objectively but is made to identify with those characters who, frustrated in their need and desire for love, suffer horror at the hands of others who are dehumanized by their indifference to love.
Hawkes succeeds admirably in sustaining the tone of his book. Its rhythm is the ebb and flow of well-paced action; its harmony is the accumulation of gradually meaningful perceptions; and its melody is the terrible cry of poor wingless man caught, snared on the lime twig which is the world.
No one else writes novels quite like Hawkes's. To find their equivalent in theme and mood, it is necessary to turn to the theater of the absurd—the works of Beckett, Ionesco, and others. There are real echoes of Brecht's DIE DREIGROSCHENOPER (THE THREEPENNY OPERA). Like some of these writers, Hawkes has also found his meaning in a focusing upon the meaningless, in a comic resignation to the terrible, and in the sympathetic response inevitably to be evoked from the beholder of suffering and stupidity.