What Went Wrong?

The Blood Oranges

by John Hawkes
New Directions, 288 pp., $6.95

The Tenants

by Bernard Malamud
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 230 pp., $6.95

St. Urbain’s Horseman

by Mordecai Richler
Knopf, 467 pp., $7.95

Wonderland

by Joyce Carol Oates
Vanguard, 493 pp., $7.95

John Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges fails because it is the work of a contemptible imagination. Hawkes has always seemed to me more an unadmitted voyeur of horror than its calm delineator, but in this new novel the pretense that what is being described is horrifying is dropped, and we have only the nightmare vision of a narrator unable to see how awful he is. He is a “sex-singer,” a middle-aged expert in love who is frequently delighted to tell us in what good shape he is, how he looks in his trunks, how skilled he is in bed. He and his wife want and capture other people, in this case another couple, and they insist the world should learn to have its sex with the same impersonal, erotic ennui that is their staple emotion. Their insistence that they are flexible and free is belied by the rigid emptiness of their daily round: sit on the beach, climb a hill to see a peasant or a goat, screw expertly.

There is cruelty here that, because unadmitted, is not even palliated by the relish of sadism. The two men see a peasant girl in a barn and the narrator says: “Perfect, let’s hunt her down.” They do, and force her to strip so they can take pictures of her, and the other man is delighted by things like the hairs on her chin because he is making a collection of photographs of peasants: “That’s perfect. Now let’s just shove her over against the beam.” Great fun.

And when the friend decides later on that he doesn’t much like the idea of the two couples making a sexual foursome, we get lectured: “Need I insist that the only enemy of the mature marriage is monogamy? That anything less than sexual multiplicity (Body upon body, voice on voice) is naïve?” When the other man wants to keep his wife to himself, when the other woman collapses after the death of her husband and the departure of her children, they are to shape up, and to this standard: “It is simply not in my character, my receptive spirit, to suffer sexual possessiveness, the shock of aesthetic greed, the bile that greases most matrimonial bonds, the rage and fear that shrivels your ordinary man at the first hint of the obvious multiplicity of love.” This deeply unreceptive narcissism has so little aesthetic greed, furthermore, or even mere desire to write well, that we find, on almost every page, something like “The sun was setting, sinking to its predestined death,” or “And already the seeds of dawn were planted in the night’s thigh.”

Hawkes has many admirers, which means some will note that I have completely missed the fact that it is all a put-on; some others will suspect I am guilty of all those sins that Hawkes’s narrator so cleverly exposes in your ordinary man. So be. But when horror becomes a pastime it should announce itself or …

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Letters

A Put-On? December 2, 1971