A Fine Madness
Nearly twenty years ago the question-begging adjective “experimental” was tastened, clamp-like, to the work in fiction of John Hawkes; and the first service one can do for his latest novel, Second Skin, is to get rid of that odious term. “Experimental” means or ought to mean, work which is tentative, investigatory, provisional—work done in a spirit of “let’s see what we can use this gadget for.” Nothing could be less characteristic of Mr. Hawkes, who asserted a fully formed style in his first novel, and has continued to exploit it, with increasing assurance and creative exuberance, ever since. The present book is a work of gifted maturity; it has been achieved, so far as appears, by the classically direct principle of developing one’s artistic perceptions in accord with one’s artistic nature, and letting the labels, along with the advertisements, fall where they may.
Because it is a book of literary quality, Second Skin does not lend itself very readily to capsule description. Equal parts of The Tempest, On the Road, Ulysses, and The Man Who Loved Children thoroughly homogenized? That doesn’t quite catch it. Poetic prose, surely; a stylized and mannered and completely idiosyncratic view of things, as one would expect from the author of The Cannibal. And a story—well, it doesn’t pretend to be much of a story, it’s more a sequence of explanations, tangled in time, fragmented, inconclusive, and sometimes needing, itself, nearly as much explanation as the original problem.
Coming down to cases, our narrator is Skipper, alias good Papa Cue Ball, a bald fat old former naval person whose present circumstances, given to us only gradually, represent the sum of an addition made, more or less partially, by the story itself. How did he get where he is? Dusky Catalina Kate is eight months pregnant with somebody’s baby; bashful Sister Josie, Big Bertha the cook, and Sonny, a faithful retainer with no scruples about the uses to which he puts the crumbling walls of Plantation House, make up the rest of a raffish menage, living in relaxed squalor on an unnamed tropical island. Almost more memorable than any of these characters is Sweet Phyllis, an urgent bovine, who very much needs to be, and finally, in a splendid floral ceremony, is artificially inseminated. Life is triumphing, blossoming, burgeoning, all around good Papa Cue Ball—though perhaps a little on its own rococo terms. There are unanswered questions in tropical profusion, to complicate things. What is Catalina Kate doing with that iguana? Whose baby huddles within her splendid swelling? It could be Skipper’s, it’ could be Sonny’s—nobody is much interested. The story is a series of ragged, milti-colored patchworks, blown pell-mell out of the distant past, and flapping on a line that leads, after a fashion, to this idyllic, Caliban present.
If success in this venture is calculated by the straightness of the line, then Mr. Hawkes’s novel is doomed from the start; for there has never been anything tidy about his narrative mode, and his ways are still majestically crooked. The story starts with a youthful idyll in a provincial mortuary parlor; through the middle distance of World War II, seen in reverse chronological perspective, we trace the Odyssey of already-elderly Skipper, daughter Cassandra, her husband Fernandez, their daughter Pixie. It leads to a Maine farmhouse where, one morning, grim widow Miranda passes across the breakfast table to Skipper dead Cassandra’s illegitimate 2-months foetus in a bottle. Some time earlier, back on Second Avenue, Fernandez has been discovered, by omnipresent Papa Cue Ball, convincingly dead in a whore-house. The reverse of his present idyll is evidently Papa Cue Ball’s consistent gift for death; his father, wife, and daughter suicides, his son-in-law is murdered, his existence is haunted by the mortuary parlor and a mother who, to prevent herself from hearing the recurrent crack of her husband’s suicide-pistol, deafened herself by pouring hot candle wax in both ears. His own narrative, persistent, intense, uncertain—has the air of a monologue recited to prevent him from hearing something; a second skin for a man who, from the beginning of his life, lacked a first one. The ill-at-ease effect is defined further by the way he hovers, half-buffoon, half-protector, always ineffectual over his various women, a blubbery, anxious, mother-type father-image. Bits and pieces of a story are stuck here and there across the surface of the book; every reader will be involved in piecing them out and putting them together. What, after all, was that mutiny aboard the Starfish led by sinister Tremlow—a fantasy, a metaphor, or a literal history? Is Skipper merely the captain of his soul, or even that? Since his son-in-law is Fernandez, since there’s a large gusty Miranda in the story, and since Papa Cue Ball won’t do at all badly as Prospero, what are we to make of his daughter Cassandra? The allusions are as ragged and derisive as the décor. Broken outlines, dim frame, lost horizon—the reader will just have to postulate Papa Cue Ball’s existence on the near edge of a hysteria that renders all reality metaphorical; the lack of firm footing may disturb readers subject to mal de mer, others will find it exhilarating.
Fortunately, Mr. Hawkes’s narrator is possessed of Mr. Hawkes’s prose style; his speech bubbles and purls in long streams of looped syntax and frothy image, it focusses and unfocusses as if equipped with a zoom lens, It is that rare thing, an artistically imaginative style, not tricksy, not calisthenic, but consciously alive and vibrant as one of Papa Cue Ball’s favorite humming birds. Readers who know Mr. Hawkes’s previous work will only have to be reminded. At once soft and grim, the new book is a study in love interlocked with death giving rise to strangeness; like that wonderful sequence of Grotteschi done by the young Piranesi, it is macabre and opulent at the same time. Vipers twine through one eye of the skull, flowers through the other; if the watcher’s eye is momentarily lost among their insinuations, it is a controlled and joyous losing.
A Fine Madness by Elliott Baker is a $10,000-award novel, but it would be cruel to hold that against it. Mr. Baker’s hero, perhaps modeled on some of Joyce Cary’s, is an untidy enthusiastic middle-aged poet with a silly name. The villains of the book are a clutch of last year’s heroes, i.e., psychoanalysts. Promethean Samson Shillitoe is ensnared by a gaggle of these incompetents. Alternately persecuted and fawned upon, he rouses their ire by seducing one of their bored wives, or at least by allowing her to seduce him (though it is hard to see why, we are assured that he is sexually irresistable). Now the analysts, animated by ill-concealed revenge, have our hero legally shanghaied to their private sanitarium, subdue him with drugs, and impose a lobotomy on him. But it doesn’t really take (apparently his brain is impervious—and this one can readily believe); he escapes their clutches and is last scen fleeing to the uneasy haven of his native middle west, getting inspired for the long-delayed conclusion of his great poem, and learning from his dumb-but-good mistress that tiny garments will soon be in order. An intricate destiny, this, and one not to be contemplated without a certain solemnnity.
Inspired geniuses of the verbal persuasion have a built-in for sounding corny in fiction. Bohemian eccentricities of language and behavior, sustained through a novel, can’t help degenerating into performances as mechanical and predictable as a comedy by an IBM Machine. Mr. Baker’s hero adds to these handicaps a rich assortment of clichés from the tradition. When he accepts an invitation to read his poems at a ladies’ club, it is inconceivable that he will not turn up drunk and insult everyone. Naturally he lives in a foul garret, drinks like a fish, suffers from the jealousy of malignant professors at Princeton, has for a friend a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, appreciates the truly authentic, and has an unerring gift for recognizing and exposing the fake. Naturally too these qualities (especially the last) invite a reader’s deepest suspicions. How can this ostentatious dowser for fakery not be take himself? Especially when the rhetcric by which he exists is unashamedly drab. There is a kind of style only to be described as rough and flat at the same time: Mr. Baker exemplifies it nicely. Time and again, he settles for the colorless and unambitious phrase, the phrase that kills our hope of felicity as with an unerring dart. At the same time, his prose is dotted with sesquipedalian verbal lumps, which (however legitimate in the dictionary) distract the reader from object to word, and trouble his progress down the narrative far more than they advance it. Some unimportant girls, glimpsed during the hero’s casual passage through a small town, may in fact be “steatopygous,” but the word in this context is neither accurate nor funny nor revealing, it is just cute. Finally, though I don’t want to pull decorum on Mr. Baker, his dirty jokes and wisecracks didn’t strike me as deft or for that matter funny.
For all these major hedges, there is a fair quantity of broad comic invention and episodic seltz in Mr. Baker’s story. He writes warmly and well of small-town scenes, types, mores; when he doesn’t try too desperately, some of the confrontations, complications, and fantasies explode into capering montage; and there are moments of proper terror in the lobotomy scenes. The problem with the novel isn’t so much lack of horsepower as lack of sophistication in controlling it. Part travesty, part surface realism, the book never really gets its tonal feet underneath it. And take away the self-pity and what have you got? One can imagine Dore Schary anointing it with oil and coming up with a great vehicle for Burt Lancaster and Vista-Vision.
Juxtaposing a pair of novels as different in their quality and obvious destiny as these two gives one furiously to think about fiction as an art, a business, and an act. But as these reflections are bound to be merely commonplace, let’s simply say that, here as elsewhere in this land of the free, you pay your money and take your choice. There’s no law that says you have to respect what you read.