An “experimental” novelist of remarkable achievement, John Hawkes wrote dark, menacingly comic novels of the grotesque and the gothic. His fiction creates difficulty for the reader who is unwilling to concur in the underlying conviction in Hawkes’s works that beauty is difficult. Although some have accused him of mere indulgence, he strove, through numerous revisions, for coherence, conscious control, and form. His ideal was the creation of a pure vision that did not rely on moral and literary conventions. Hawkes carried the suffocating burden of evil, destruction, putrefaction, and sexual perversion with such success that he could insist: “The product of extreme fictive detachment is extreme fictive sympathy.” The creative process itself, he said, “is probably immoral, but its ultimate aim and moral purpose is compassion for every living thing.”
John Clendenin Burne Hawkes, Jr., lived in Old Greenwich and in New York City until he was ten, when his family moved to Juneau, Alaska. He attended Trinity School, Pawling, and, after serving a year in Germany with the American Field Service, Harvard College. In Albert Guerard’s creative writing class, he finished two novels, The Cannibal and Charivari. The Cannibal, a nightmare vision of Germany after World War II, evokes the desolation of war-torn Europe and forecasts the repetition of Nazi destruction. When the novel appeared in 1949 (the year of his graduation from Harvard), Hawkes was twenty-three years old, well-read in modern poetry but unacquainted with much contemporary fiction. Although he claimed that his books “came out of a vacuum,” comparisons were quickly made with Franz Kafka, Djuna Barnes, Flannery O’Connor, and Nathanael West; later books also show the distinct influence of William Faulkner.
Until 1955, Hawkes was assistant to the production manager at Harvard University Press. During that time, The Beetle Leg and two novellas, The Goose on the Grave and The Owl, appeared. He lectured in creative writing at Harvard for a few years, then was an instructor in English there until 1958. On September 5, 1957, he married Sophie Goode Tazewell. After 1958, he was first assistant and later associate professor at Brown University, where he taught courses in writing; in 1962, he received an M.A. from Brown University. In 1959, he was visiting assistant professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also taught at Harvard Summer School and at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference of Middlebury College, and he served as writer-in-residence at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, the University of Virginia, and the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, before returning to Brown.
With the publication of The Lime Twig, Hawkes’s underground reputation emerged; a British film company bought the rights to his novel, a parody of a detective thriller about an innocent couple who get mixed up with gangsters and their plot to steal a famous English racehorse. In 1962, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant; on a sabbatical from Brown, he lived on the island of Grenada in the West Indies and wrote Second Skin. In this work, the narrator, Skipper, reflects on the suicides of his father, his wife, and his daughter as he struggles to reconstruct his “naked history” through the use of imagination to structure experience. A strange comedy of love, it was a leading contender for the 1964 National Book Award.
In the 1970’s, Hawkes’s trilogy of sex and the imagination appeared; The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep, and the Traveler, and Travesty explore the relationship of death, eroticism, and the absurd. Travesty, one of Hawkes’s most accessible novels, is the monologue of a man calmly driving his daughter and his friend toward a fatal car crash. The struggle between generative and degenerative eroticism also continued to occupy Hawkes’s imagination in The Passion Artist and Virginie: Her Two Lives.
The loosely autobiographical novel Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade encapsulates many themes that surface in Hawkes’s earlier work. The protagonist, Sunny Deauville, dedicates herself to hedonism as the madame of Gamelands, an Alaskan whorehouse. Yet she is troubled by haunting dreams about her missing father’s adventures in the 1930’s, which force her to revisit scenes from her childhood. In his later novels, Whistlejacket and Sweet William: A Memoir of Old Horse, Hawkes’s equestrian interest revealed itself in the service of his investigation into the nature of perception and morality. His dark humor is evident in The Frog, about a young boy who swallows a frog, which then lives inside him for the rest of his life. A young orphan girl serves as narrator for An Irish Eye, which evokes the story of Cinderella. Hawkes died in 1998 at the age of seventy-two.