By S.E. Hinton. Tor. 251 pp. $21.95
Is there an American teenager who hasn't read at least one of S.E. Hinton's books? Ponyboy, Rusty-James, Motorcycle Boy, Tex -- for a lot of us, these names are as evocative of adolescent despair and yearning as Holden Caulfield's. With the 1967 publication of her first novel, The Outsiders (written when she was only 16), Hinton pretty much invented YA (Young Adult) literature as both genre and marketing category. Her best and best-known works -- The Outsiders; That Was Then, This Is Now; Rumble Fish; and Tex -- are all straightforward first-person narratives charting the unstable, if now all-too-familiar, terrain of Teenage Angst Lit: boy trouble, girl trouble, drug trouble, parent truancy, warring high school cliques, abandonment, betrayal, loss, all played out against a working-class background of decaying American heartland towns and farms. They're gritty stories, leavened with a grain of hope and a stoic moralism that have earned them a coveted spot on many middle and high school reading lists, even as the microscopic view of teenage mores has also sometimes gotten them banned from same.
Hinton's career has been in something of a hiatus since 1979, when her last YA novel, Taming the Star Runner, appeared. Since then she's written two books for younger children. Her new book, Hawkes Harbor, her first major novel in more than 20 years, is being trumpeted (and marketed) as her first "adult" novel.
I'm one of those people who grew up with Hinton's books, and I wish I could say that Hawkes Harbor is a triumphant return by a much-beloved writer, but frankly, it's a shambles. The author's cast-iron reputation is probably safe from being damaged by its publication -- I hope, so, anyway -- but it's hard to imagine any first-time readers, adult or otherwise, being captivated by this rambling, episodic mess.
Jamie Sommers, the novel's protagonist, is in many ways a typical Hinton character brought to rather shaky maturity: feckless and lacking direction, essentially goodhearted but easily led astray. Jamie is an orphan, raised by cruel nuns in the Bronx; he attends high school, then has a three-year stint in the Navy. A life on the ocean waves appeals to young Jamie, and after his service he takes up with Kellen Quinn, a silver-tongued Irish gunrunner, smuggler and general ne'er-do-well who is by far the novel's best-drawn character. Kell and Jamie's long-term, intense and intensely competitive relationship has homoerotic tensionstamped on it in shining gold letters; but Hinton, alas, is too timid to pursue it.
Or perhaps she's simply unaware. There's an odd, naive time-capsule quality to Hawkes Harbor; most of the action takes place between the early 1960s and 1978, and the story reads as though it were cobbled together from B-movies made during that period. There are pirates, an insane asylum, a shark attack, soft-core sex with a mean rich girl on a yacht, soft-core sex with two nubile young women on a cruise ship, a haunted house, a ghost and, god help me, a vampire. All of this is recounted in earnest, unintentionally hilarious prose that sprays clichés the way an assault rifle sprays bullets. If Hawkes Harbor were a movie, it would be giddily dissected by the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" crew, and might well become a camp classic, a la "The Catalina Caper" or "Santa Claus Versus the Martians."
Unfortunately, Hawkes Harbor is a book. The first third is likable enough, with Jamie and Kell having adventures on the high seas -- pirates, jewel smuggling, narrow escapes, sharks. But even these engagingly old-fashioned escapades lack narrative drive, since Hinton inexplicably breaks the novel's momentum with an endless and confusing series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, all framed by a series of interviews Jamie undergoes at the Terrace View Asylum, where he is being treated for depression and amnesia.
The vampire angle is tossed into the novel nearly halfway through, though it's hinted at earlier. Again, Hinton seems sadly out of touch. However one feels about the Children of the Night and their eldritch kin, the last 30 years have seen an efflorescence -- or is that effungusence? -- of vampire literature from the likes of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Brian Lumley, Suzy McKee Charnas, Laurel Hamilton and Lucius Shepard, among dozens of others.
Hinton seems not to have read any of these. Her vampire, Grenville Hawkes, is the least convincing member of the undead since Ed Woods's chiropractor put on poor dead Bela Lugosi's cape in "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Once Grenville is mistakenly disinterred by Jamie, who's looking for treasure in an old graveyard, he and the plot lurch from one wildly unconvincing scene to the next, all strung together with as much logic or coherence as, well, an Ed Wood movie. In the book's most bizarre twist, old Kell Quinn reappears out of nowhere. Grenville sucks Kell's blood, Jamie drives a stake through Kell's heart; not long afterward, Grenville appears somehow to have been cured of vampirism and, in his new gruff-but-lovable avuncular role, takes Jamie on a cruise ship, where the young man meets those two cuties mentioned earlier and has the kind of "Penthouse Letters" experience that young men do not have in The Outsiders.
It's sad, and depressing, to read a bad book by a writer one respects.
On her Web site, Hinton states that "I have to become my narrator when I'm writing." One can only assume that in order to write an "adult" novel, she felt it necessary to abandon her great strength -- the first-person voice inside her head that gave us some of the most influential YA books ever written. A novel about the grownup Ponyboy or Tex could have been brilliant; so could a book featuring an entirely new cast of kids adrift in a new century. Sadly, that's not the novel Hinton has written in Hawkes Harbor.
Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Mortal Love."