READING A NOVEL by John Hawkes is like wandering through a hothouse. Everything grows or crawls. Life rises out of festering earth. Closeness is offset by exhilaration. The fever is a green one.
In the Passion Artist the fever takes place in an imaginary European country that looks like East Germany and sounds like a lunatic asylum managed by storm troopers. The psychological dislocation that wrenches this totalitarian state of "tin trolley cars and small gray three-wheeled automobiles" appears to be sexual. Political oppression seems to have bred erotic despair. However, some of this sexual despondency may be only in the air, or in my fancy. Hawkes' settings drift into atmosphere, and we're supposed to help him read the weather. It's Hawkes' way of breaking down disbelief. Participatory fiction.
The hero of the Passion Artist is a middle-aged druggist with "all the hallmarks of the born pedant wedded to those of the petty genius of the police state." He reflects on the joy of regimentation. Konrad Vost looks like an undertaker in a 1935 movie -- gold-rimmed spectacles, black serge suit, lacquered hair, and a "single steel canine in his mouthful of teeth." At times he feels "like some military personage striding with feigned complacency down a broad avenue awash with urine."
Vost thinks Jean-Paul Sartre thougghts and wonders why with "hand so suited to gripping the truncheon," he should have succumbed to the tyranny of a bizarre domesticity. His life has been dogged by three women: his faithless dead wife; his daughter, who has become a teenaged whore; and his mother, who is nearby in prison for murder. She drenched Vost's father in kerosene and set him afire.
Konrad Vost passes time contemplating "the lessons of devastation." Totalitarianism soothes him. "The irony of order existing only in desolation and discomfort was a satisfaction beyond imagining." He makes his daughter's bed and meals. With flowers wrapped in newspaper he visits weekly the graveside of the wife who "regularly had naked fleshly relations with a man . . . whom she had met in a bakery." Again and again, he sits at the cafe' across from La Violaine prison, which holds only women, watching for some hint of recognition in the faces of those being discharged. He has not seen his mother since childhood. But nothing happens except Vost's integration into routine -- "the rancid smell of burning cigarettes, the progress of a blinded fly, the scraping of one of the outdoor chairs."
Suddenly Konrad Vost's arid world of torn posters, intimidating uniforms and public odors explodes with sexuality. Fatigue turns erotic. Everything is disordered and, as usually happens in a Hawkes novel, senseless events in a senseless environment yield lavish suffering and joy. Vost discovers "the sum of his own secrets." He knows "at last the transports of that singular experience which makes every man an artist: the experience, that is, of the willed erotic union."
This erotic-esthetic metamorphosis begins when Vost accidentally is introduced to fellatio by a girl friend of his daughter on the day the women of La Violaine revolt and take command of their jail. It approaches conclusion with Vost's capture by the rebels, and his imprisonment a La Violaine because he volunteered to help put down their riot. For three days and nights he is subjected to the most exquisite torture. Under the supervision of Vost's mother (she tried to abort him at birth) the freed women of La Violaine raise Vost's desire to a pitch near madness and then leave him writhing in his cell. Vost's final transport to "his bed of stars . . . his bed of hot coals" occurs in an act of anal-oral sex that serves as Hawkes' all-purpose metaphor for the yins and yangs of his novel -- pleasure and pain, man and woman, love and hate, pornography and art.
Probably not among John Hawkes' most important works, except for what Konrad Vost says on his behalf about Hawkes' philosophy of beauty in blackness, the Passion Artist is an odd bundle of diamonds and junk.
The language sparkles. It also collapses under its weight of adverbs and adjectives. If a Latin-root word is available to thicken the mood, Hawkes chooses it. He reduces movement to a crawl by nearly forbidding dialogue. Emotional truths well up from an incredible X-rated plot devoid of coherence. Stunning episodes of reality are sandwiched between sinister fakes.
The most convincing scenes in the novel -- the tiny Konrad Vost stealing into his mother's bed to lie beside his sleeping father, his sexual initiation by the notorious Eva Laubenstein, "matron of the farm for disordered children," -- bear little relationship in style or tone to that of the Passion Artist as a whole.
The best of the novel, a longing for innocence and a deep sorrow over the suffering that life inflicts, seems to come from another place or time in Hawkes's career. The worst is conjured up as a grotesquely serio-comic background upon which Hawkes projects middle-aged thoughts about the benefits of an aggressive sexuality.
Yet Hawkes, even here at less than his best (Second Skin or The Lime Twig ), continues to be one of the three or four most interesting writers of fiction in the United States, and The Passion Artist shows why.
His point of view can always be predicted. Of Konrad Vost he says, "The poles of his most general theory of the psychological function were these: that the interior life of the man is a bed of stars, that the interior life of the man is a pit of putrescence. Of course the two poles could be easily reconciled by discerning in putrescence its natural radiance. But he . . . recognized the danger of such a reconciliation, which all too easily became the sleight of hand of the optimist, who employs light to blind us to the fact of darkness."
However, the expression of this view, which experience often confirms, cannot be predicted. The Passion Artist is Hawkes and sex with a new motor. We read John Hawkes for the privilege of running alongside his imagination. The Passion Artist is sad, funny, tedious, absurd, lascivious and as fresh as rain, even though the water is black.
It's probably Hawkes' fate to go on writing his novels that push contemporary fiction on beyong Joyce and Faulkner without ever finding the massive audience one would wish for his work. He continues to be difficult. His sensuality usually turns intellectual. He doesn't like plot and character. He likes scenes and temperaments. He has had heavy influence, however, as a model for a generation of forthcoming writers.
As in The Passion Artist , what can be imagined for Hawkes takes priority over what may exist. "I'm not interested in 'life,'" he told students at a fiction festival in Cincinnati last year. "Fiction that insists on created actuality is its own reality . . . . And I want fiction always to situate us in the psychic and literal spot where life is most difficult, most dangerous, most beautiful." In this regard The Passion Artist is an unqualified success.