STATS: BOOK / JOHN HAWKES / 175pp. / 1960
A nightmare in the most literal, equine sense, all to do with big black horses loose in the night, with a dense, irrational, sometimes slow-burning and sometimes-hysterical boardinghouse noir on top, as oppressive in its own way as that notion becomes on Bowie’s Lodger. In the guise of spoofing 60’s madcap band-of-criminals heist capers — with maybe Kubrick’s Jim-Thompson-penned ’56 racetrack melee “The Killing” foremost among the spoofees — Hawkes [not your grandmother’s Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes] takes you into a British-set netherzone of obliquely or casually predatory drifters, rampaging beasts, and dissolved thought/matter distinctions more or less unmatched in the rest of books (except the rest of John Hawkes books).
A pervasive, persistent half-world: things are always half in focus, half-coming-toward-you and half-receding, half-waking and half-sleeping, half-friend and half-foe, half-self and half-stranger, half-tangible and half-figments, though fraught and maybe lethal figments, and maybe not ones generated by you alone.
A lot of people have tried to get at in writing that isn’t Hawkes what Hawkes’ writing is all about, oftentimes having recourse to fetishizing allusions of fog and mist. Some of this manages to wrap you up and/or guide you more safely down into the Hawkes pit, but I don’t think at the end of the day you can really do much to probe the place where the things of something like The Lime Twig are gestating, hatching, unfolding, and sludging their way across London and out into the dapper English countryside.
The novel’s entire world, if there can be said to be any daytime/nighttime or reality/fantasy split at all (and don’t expect any such split to last), is one of lone wanderers in the dark of the city, of people dying for no reason or seeming dead but not being it, of people drawn toward confrontation and violence on slow, almost distracted, but non-negotiable vectors. They traipse about, looking for trouble or waiting for it to find them, sinking a little further into the Hawkes pit with each aimless step like the ground anywhere you go is the world’s slowest-sinking quicksand. The novel opens:
“Or perhaps you yourself were once the lonely lodger. Perhaps you crossed the bridges with the night crowds … You walked in the cathedral’s shadow while the moon kept shining on three girls ahead. And you followed the moonlit girls. Or followed a woman carrying a market sack, or followed a slow bus high as a house with a saint’s stone shadow on its side … Then a turn in the street and broken glass at the foot of a balustrade and you wiped your forehead. And standing still, shoes making idle noise on the smashed glass, you took the packet from inside your coat, unwrapped the oily paper, and far from the tall lamp raised the piece of hot white fish to your teeth … You must have eaten with your fingers … No need for the rent per week, the names of streets … And did your finger ever really touch the bell?”
And much later, after plenty more drifting and sinking, once the fresh killings start, a reminiscence: ” … he had had his own kill once, kept dirty rooms in a tower in the college’s oldest quad.” He sails away in a punt-boat on a nighttime river, “listening to the fiends sighing in nearby ponds and marshes … ”
Hawkes writes sentences — sentences upon sentences — that combine the roughly physical with a sort of sticky, webby gossamer interworld material. More than a spirit element, it’s like a contaminant, like a smell that comes from things that shouldn’t:
“At thee platform’s sudden edge, she saw a field sunk like iron under the stone fences, a shape that might have been a murdered horse or sheep, a brook run cold.”
“Once too in the dark of a prison night, and many times, on leave with some strange fat girl wearing rolled stockings, or with a tall girl carrying her underclothes in a respirator bag, standing idly by and swinging the bag … ”
As the big racetrack free-for-all conclusion draws near, and the fate of the stolen horse and the horse-stealing men and their accomplice dames and consorts comes as into focus as it’s going to come, the heat of his characters’ bawdiness and lewdness speeds the sinking of the quicksand that undergirds whatever’s left masquerading as a foundation — “Once he had seen a man die on the toilet — from fear,” until “only a lower world of turning and crawling and groaning men remained.”
“You’d best not interfere, I said. There’s power in this world you never dreamed of, I told him.” I think John Hawkes, had he lived, would have had his own ironclad and inexplicable way of watching Upstream Color.