On The Greatness of John Hawkes

I've long suspected that John Hawkes was a superb author, and now I've confirmed it by reading his novel Second Skin. I'm hoping to eventually do a post going into what I think makes this book so good, but I don't have the time right now.

Fortunately, Jim Shepard's appreciation of Hawkes from the book Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives has just been exerpted at The Rumpus. (And be sure to check the comments thread for an odd, somewhat spazzy comment by Rick Moody.)

These observations of Hawkes as a workshop leader seem very much in keeping with my experience of reading his Second Skin:

As our teacher, Jack modeled for us so many things. He reminded us of the ways in which fiction so often was willing to confront ugliness in the service of its opposite. He taught us to value obsessive focus. He insisted that when writing we not forget our allegiance to the body. He demanded we stay willing to be educated about our emotions.

But most of all, he taught us to leap at the astonishingly idiosyncratic wherever it appeared in our work. To value the expressive potential of the unexpectedly strange.

Celebrating such stories as they came across his desk, Jack exulted in the excess, the unruliness, the energy that resulted in our having turned ourselves over to our intuition. What he was teaching me, when he taught me always to look for the strangeness and to value the weird, was to understand that those moments that I hadn’t fully planned were reliably the ones in which I electrified my inert little narrative, and most likely, most fully revealed myself. Or at least: revealed what was potentially my most interesting self.

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Scott, I really am looking forward to your essay on Hawkes. He absolutely knocked me out too when I first read “Blood Oranges” so long ago (way back in the late 1970’s), and there are also beautiful shorter pieces he wrote for Mark Mirsky’s FICTION,long ago, too. FICTION published alot of his work in the late 1970’s. You might want to check those older issues. Also Donald Barthelme published alot of his stories in FICTION,too. He started it with Mark Mirsky and John Hawkes was such a force back then. Just to say how happy I am he’s getting a long overdue re-look.

John (or Jack as it were) Hawkes second novel, The Beetle Leg , obtuse as it is, STILL resonates with me. And I read it over four months ago. I think it was Bill Gass who said about Hawkes, “He is the only writer whose sentences breathe what they see.”

I agree with Randy on The Beetle Leg: it’s a very difficult read, but something about it has stuck with me…. and the passage in which the title came into play is simply gorgeous. I’ve tried and failed three times to read his incredibly difficult first novel, Cannibal. I think he gets somewhat easier to read after these first two, but no less interesting.

Thanks to you and Randy for the recommendation. The Beetle Leg sounds like a good second book. By the way, I’ve just been informed that Dalkey will be reissuing The Passion Artist in the spring.

Thanks for reminding me of Hawkes! I heard him read and answer questions about thirty years ago: he insisted that a novel should come entirely out of one’s head, and claimed he never researched anything. I read The Lime Twig, The Blood Oranges, maybe some others, and was very taken with the spell they cast. (I connect them in my mind with Jose Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, which I remember as a very strange and powerful book.)

Just finished the obscure but brilliant ‘The Beetle Leg’: its not so much a surrealistic wester n as magical surrealism.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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