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John Hawkes

By William H. Gass

The first marvel was how young he was. Not just when he was young was he young, but Jack Hawkes wore the wide eye always. I first exclaimed—complained—about his age when I realized that The Cannibalthis rich original deeply considered and ambitious workhad been written for a class by someone not yet twenty-four. Hawkes had, of course, earned his wisdom amid the pain and fear and empathy of ambulance work, but pointing in the war’s direction would not account for the masterful way he had made art out of the awful. In those days young men were exposed to maiming, misery, and death almost before they’d got over measles and chicken pox, but I dare say few wrote very much or very well about it. This amazing young man could capture and release the very rhythms of unreason. He could pace a sentence as if he were pronouncing it upon a criminal who would later be redeemed, though never pardoned, by the same words. The affinity he had for the outcastthe lame, the halt, the blind, both the bully and his victimwas hidden behind a countenance that went about as open as a window.

Attempts by reviewers, interviewers, even friends, to attach his work to his person were rarely successful but surely a part of both was their unflagging idealism and the search for a purity religion could never reach. All the traditional paths to a better life led in fact to the frontlines and their trenches; moreover most of those who went over-the-top did so only to suffer assault or to assault others. Whether in practice we cowered or attacked, we remained participants in the same old conventional and continuing war. Jack was always searching for an uncorrupted point of view, and that was one reason why he disdained the customary elements of fiction: its plots, its characters, its scenes, its fake realism, its banal situations.

Unlikely places would give him an unlikely eye, so he’d sail away to actual or virtual islands and happily strand himself amid hardships he probably enjoyed a bit more than his family. Those famously odd perspectives he chose to write from aimed, I think, to achieve the same goala vision of things unspoiled by a corrupt although pedestrian past.

Jack saw the apple, and certainly he saw the worm; he also was able to imagine the worm to be more interesting, more essential, as nourishing as the apple, quite possibly as tasty. He was ready to sample whatever would give him words, because words were what he worked with, what his art was made of; because, as he said, language was “nothing but intelligence being turned into sound.” Jack tended to prolong his vowels so he used a good deal of breath when he spokeinteresting for a frequently breathless personbut I always thought this quality appropriate since breath, after all, is an ancient substance of the soul.

He often said he was obsessed by eroticism, equally often he said it was death or horses, but I always felt that he wanted to write only about the hard things – made hard by all the false opinions and lying attitudes that gathered around them, and the malevolent manipulations to which they were subjected. We had turned human health into an illness, become suspicious of our senses, indifferent to our minds, and this transformation of good into evilbitterly funny absurditywas the ground of what Jack Hawkes called ‘the comic.”

He was one of writing’s real heroes and his work continues the struggle of our art to achieve freedom through its form and beauty through its language. For his last masterpiece, An Irish Eye, Jack became a thirteen-year old Irish girl, getting younger every year, for we know whose Irish eye it is; and she says, at the conclusion of this great career, she says something that makes me, happily, all earmakes me ready to go out listeningshe says: “So now it is I who tell them stories. And who reassures them when they don’t know who they are or why. I who stand singing at the end of the dark room where all my foundling girls lie sleeping.”


Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 14, 2000.

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