Hit and Miss

Second Skin

by John Hawkes
New Directions, 192 pp., $1.60 (paper)

A Fine Madness

by Elliott Baker
Putnam, 319 pp., $4.95

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…

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