Presenting the titular novel for my Blog, for this (along with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), represents the high water mark of Windswept Fiction….
Most would have started their foray into John Hawkes overlooked oeuvre with one of two of his best known works, The Lime Twig or The Blood Oranges. I on the other hand had been made aware of him in the early 80’s when he was (then) on the second wave of the next great American novelists. After Barth, Pynchon and Barthelme, came W.H. Gass, Robert Coover, John Hawkes and Stanley Elkin. Of the second wave, only Gass and Coover have remained on the literary landscape, though Hawkes had a strong critical following in France. After recently reading a novel by each Hawkes and Elkins, I would argue their semi-obscurity is undeserved. Both treat themes with narrative processes that are still quite relevant. Both possessed an immense amount of talent. I had read many years ago, his 1985 Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. While I remember it having some noteworthy prose, it was not at all otherwise memorable, and is now considered one of his weaker efforts. I picked out The Beetle Leg, because mention of his obscure early novel kept cropping up by some heavyweight writers I admire. Written in 1949-50 while he was spending the summer in Montana’s ‘Badlands’, as a tour guide on the Fort Peck Reservoir dam. This was his second novel, after The Cannibal, and as a 24 year old his prose and narrative style here were on the forefront of experimental fiction. His mentor-editor noted novelist and critic, Albert J. Guerard called it ‘Surrealist Western Fiction’ so the typical readership of the time could nod to themselves when they came across passages like:
Now I’ll talk. You’ve answered to me for having found him crouched with bare, folded feet, for having watched the thinly wrinkled, perforated breath of skin that was his throat-dry now, untouched, except for the soothing pressure of some tons of earth-for having spied on the wrappings, the colorless cloth, the complete expulsion of bodily fluids, the immobility of ten dangling fingers shoved like minnows into the shriveled ground.
Reading halfway through I wondered if Cormac McCarthy read The Beetle Leg before he wrote Blood Meridian… Hawkes’s early credo was: ‘the true enemies of the novel were character, plot, setting and theme’. The novel’s structure is more akin to a that of a poem, chapters are movements, stanzas made up of the un-framed scenes and images of these few who search for something human to hold up, to finally hold onto in this impossible and nightmarish desolation of the reservoir. The prose has its own unique cadence, and is dominated by its visual nature, it breathes what it sees. Interestingly, the chapters are ‘numbered’ in braille symbols. Hawkes constricted narrative lens offers little interiority of the characters, with little contextual framing of scenes. He interweaves a backstory of a local geo-catastrophe, the Great Slide, the one event shaping the the landscape as well as the families scratching out a living in the sere badlands, with the story of the lost’ couple, the ‘Campers’ in the narrative present. The insignificant settlers are pitted against the menacing landscape. The first chapter frames enough to offer an entry point before the increasingly dense later chapters. Surrealism it isn’t tho. The undertow here is more important than the chaotic-sometimes incoherent seeming surface. If you are not averse to non-traditional fiction, and if you do read it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading it aloud. To friends and family. To random strangers…