(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

At 149 kilometers per hour and still accelerating through the curves of a lonely road in France, the powerful beige sport touring car suddenly swerves a bit as one of its passengers lunges at the steering wheel, trying to wrest it from the car’s driver. So begins John Hawkes’s Travesty—quickly, nervously, a bit violently, during the darkest quarter of a cold, wet night. But soon the auto is back on course, the driver deftly fending off the attack and regaining complete control. Or so he says. For as one reads on, he discovers that this well-appointed glass-and-steel surrogate mother—the upholstery soft and comforting, the machine’s heater keeping its travelers well-toasted and insulated against the hostile natural forces—this mechanical womb, will shortly be a tomb for its inhabitants. For though the driver says that he is in complete control, the control he possesses is that of a demented sniper behind an M-16 or a 3.5 Mannlicher, slowly but surely squeezing the trigger; this driver’s target is an old stone wall, about a meter thick, of an abandoned barn many kilometers away.

Travesty’s calculating narrator, an unnamed, middle-aged “privileged” person, is the outgrowth of two other Hawkesian creations, two other self-justifying confessors—Cyril of The Blood Oranges (1971) and Allert of Death, Sleep & The Traveler (1974); and Travesty forms the final volume of a trilogy concerned ultimately with probing the limits of the poetic imagination and erotic fantasy. Like the other two narrators, this speaker talks on and on, trying to justify his actions through much sophistical argument and simultaneously exposing his own sexual obsessions, his self-absorption, his perversions and madness. Meanwhile, his passengers—Henri, a poet, the narrator’s supposed friend, and sharer of his wife’s bed, and Chantal, the narrator’s twenty-five-year-old daughter and lover of Henri—seem to disintegrate slowly as the time of their “private apocalypse” draws near.

As the speaker ruminates on, gently but firmly discounting all physical, intellectual, and emotional appeals from his captives, as Chantal vomits in the back seat and Henri begins to wheeze up front, Hawkes’s persona coolly outlines his motives for the premeditated murder/suicide and at the same time recounts the significant experiences of his life. From the speciousness of his arguments and from his reveries, the reader pieces together a picture of a man who is much less and much more than what he appears to be.

Albeit a simpler text in comparison with Hawkes’s other novels in terms of density of language, symbol, and time structure, the novel remains difficult because of the author’s manipulation of its form, the dramatic monologue, one used by poets from Browning to Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Frost. In the novel we hear only one speaker in a dramatic situation, as in “My Last Duchess,” but the reader cannot penetrate the persona’s glossy statements to the real truth of the situation and the nature of the speaker as readily as he can Browning’s Duke’s. Hawkes’s form is rather closely modeled after that of Albert Camus’ The Fall. Like the statements of Camus’ ambiguous judge-penitent, those of Travesty’s narrator may or may not be true. In fact, the persona’s comment in The Fall—“it’s very hard to disentangle the true from the false in what I’m saying”—is paraphrased and amended slightly by the driver of the beige car: “The moral of it all is trust me but do not believe me.” The reader must beware, then, of lending credence too quickly or even finally to the speaker’s comments, for, in the Swiftian mode, all statements in this box are false.

Travesty, then, an uncertain reading experience, creates angst for its audience through its form. For instance, one can never be sure if anyone is really in the auto with the narrator; one must infer the presence of Henri and Chantal, because of their violent actions and frenzied comments—so different from the speaker’s smooth, glib verbal reactions to them. Moreover, one cannot be sure that there is really any car at all, any exterior reality to the present and past events described so hauntingly and yet so clearly; perhaps the narrator is simply dreaming, letting his suppressed memories and desires well up and flow out. Perhaps by opening the novel the reader simply enters the dark world of the imagination of Hawkes’s persona, traveling with him on a psychic journey into the depths of his mind. And, lastly, perhaps all of this is a travesty, a distorted burlesque of supposedly enlightened twentieth century man, of Hawkes’s own creations, of Hawkes’s own literary perspective. That evidence exists which supports each of these four perspectives (real but irrational, remembered, imagined, and burlesqued) adds great ambiguity to the work, making any final reading of it a categorical impossibility. At the same time, that it is a frightening book, a disquieting book, cannot be denied. What makes it so is the result of the speaker’s extraordinary characterization, his haunting and vivid descriptions of the surface textures of his past, and his cataloging of the landscape details that seem to flash by, made visible both by the bright cone of light created by the auto’s headlights and by the imaginative vision of the poet-driver.

Initially, the oily, sophisticated narrator seems to be in absolute control not only of the expensive bomb that...

(The entire section is 2280 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Best Sellers. XXXVI, June, 1976, p. 69.

National Review. XXVIII, April 30, 1976, p. 461.

New Republic. CLXXIV, May 8, 1976, p. 26.

New York Times Book Review. March 28, 1976, p. 23.

New Yorker. LII, April 19, 1976, p. 134.

Observer. July 18, 1976, p. 21.