LONGTIME ADMIRERS of John Hawkes' fiction who have had trouble with his past two novels can relax: his new book, Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade, is one of his very best. Hawkes' name is a magic word for anyone who cultivated a taste for new fiction during the 1950s and 1960s. The landscape he discovered in early novels like The Cannibal and The Lime Twig was exciting in a way modern American imaginative prose had never been before: shadowy and out of focus, but very precise in its ability to evoke equivocal emotions for which no names exist.
As his style matured, each new work appeared to become more realistic, progressing from the dreamlike blur of The Cannibal to the solid but refracted reality of Second Skin. In this last-named novel and the next few to follow it, Hawkes described a world that resembled that of more conventional novelists, but which could suddenly split apart to reveal terrifying, irrational emotions seething beneath the surface. Something seemed to go wrong, however, when The Passion Artist appeared in 1979. Sexual ideas which had been intriguing in Hawkes' earlier work moved to center stage, and the novel came across as curiously obsessive and shrill. Virginie, Her Two Lives (1982) struck at least this reader as even less satisfactory: an elegantly written but thin erotic caricature. Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade marks a return to the great days.
Readers who pick up the novel will get yanked in so quickly that they may forget whom it is they're dealing with: a writer whose true subject is the irrational reality that lies under the surface of things. In this case, the surface is the adventure-packed memoir of an Alaskan whorehouse madam with the unlikely name of Sunny Deauville. Underneath, it is a psychological study of a disturbed father-daughter relationship, so powerful and acute that it bears comparison with Christina Stead's great The Man Who Loved Children.
Like Sam Pollit, the demonic father in Stead's novel, John Burne Deauville, Sunny's father, is an irresistibly magnetic figure. After bringing his wife and daughter to Juneau in 1930, he chases around after adventure, casting his family in whatever roles he finds necessary to fulfill his fantasies, and disappears without a trace in 1940. Sunny narrates all of this from the standpoint of 1965, when she is 40 years old and desperately trying to leave Alaska, the land of her father's disappearance, and travel to France, where he was born.
A large portion of the novel is made up of Sunny's retellings of her father's accounts of his adventures, spun out to family and friends each time he returns home. The tales themselves are whoppers: killing giant bears, pulling teeth for suffering Indian chiefs, rescuing prospectors driven mad by mosquitos, but it quickly becomes clear that Sunny's feelings will not permit her to recount his narratives accurately. She is possessed by her memories of her father, wounded by his unexplained disappearance and abandonment of her to a degree she can't begin to express directly, and her portrait of him is grotesque with the distortions wrought by 25 years of tortured and unresolved speculation about him. He emerges as a kind of spring-wound incarnation of the Boy Scout Oath, a monster of manly virtue and relentless self-conscious moral purity, who speaks a laundered macho idiom straight out of boys' adventure fiction as he unconsciously destroys those who are closest to him.
From the outset, John Deauville sets up impassable barriers between his family and himself. He is especially creative in using nicknames to undermine natural relationships: his daughter becomes Sunny; his wife, Cecily turns into Sissy, and he himself "a few months prior to going to Alaska . . . renicknamed himself Uncle Jake . . . My father, then, was Uncle Jake. I was not allowed to call him Father. I was never allowed to call him Dad. Especially was I never allowed to call him Dad. But if my father was to be blamed for humorously renaming the unoffending population of his little world, and most of all denying to his daughter what was rightfully hers -- the name appropriate to that man who was her sole spell-caster -- how much more was I to be blamed, since I too called my mother Sissy." He is also ambivalent in his perception of pain in those who love him. He never becomes aware of Sissy's crushing unhappiness in Alaska, and even though he suffers mightily as she is being treated for a toothache, he fails to observe the symptoms of the heart disease which will kill his wife after five years in the unhospitable territory.
ALTHOUGH UNCLE JAKE is a handme and dashing man, he is so oblivious to sexual identity that he spends years in the vicinity of a Juneau hotel swarming with prostitutes without ever realizing that they are anything other than friendly women who know how to give a warm greeting if you meet them in the corridor. He knows how to mix a wicked punch, but will never touch anything stronger than ginger ale, and emphatically forbids family and friends from sipping even a beer. He never questions the presumed natural inferiority of American Indians, one of several firmly held prejudices that Sunny records without comment.
Her judgment on all of this is her chosen style of living, which is in effect a gigantic reaction against Uncle Jake. In response to his puritanism she constructs the Alaska- Yukon Gamelands, a kind of theme park brothel which caters to the supermales which populate Sunny's Alaska. After her father's disappearance she wastes little time in sacrificing her virginity to an Indian named Sitka Charley, and she has no aversion at all to alcohol.
But this rejection takes a toll. Fight it as she may, Sunny is still Daddy's girl. The first word of her memoir is "Dad," despite the injunction, and throughout her account she unwittingly romanticizes her father extravagantly. Her account of his courtship of Sissy, for example, is an elaborate paraphrase of the Cinderella story, complete with malicious sisters and fateful footwear. More poignantly, he haunts her dreams. Even those who know the surrealist methods of Hawkes' first novels will be amazed at the power of the nightmares he creates for Sunny: tight formulations of failure and guilt which embrace the reader with the suffocating pressure of real dreams. In each of them she rather impassively watches Uncle Jake die a gruesome death as he requests her help with equal impassiveness.
All refer to his request that "when I go -- when it's my turn to go -- you're the only person I want at my funeral. Not even (my parter) Fran, Sunny, just you." Sunny can never really move on until she participates in some form of funeral for him, even if it is just an understanding of his disappearance. Such a revelation does occur, and it forms the crux of the novel, heralding Sunny's liberation from her guilt and acceptance of herself.
Sunny is a fascinating character, and she keeps the book constantly and vigorously alive. Some of her reminiscences jolt with their perverse originality, such as her account of how the most virile of her lovers was stolen by the astounding Martha Washington, an amazon aviatrix and adventuress whose penny-dreadful life succeeds in all the areas where Uncle Jake's fails. But Hawkes' greatest success in Adventures is the depth with which he permits the reader to understand Uncle Jake despite the narrator's various blindnesses. He passes the fact of Uncle Jake's vast vulnerability right over Sunny's head to the reader, showing the deep scars left by the neglect, the suicide of loved ones and other forms of emotional abandonment which had been part of his upbringing. ("Innocence in Extremis," a long story by Hawkes in the current issue of Conjunctions recounts an incident from Uncle Jake's childhood that makes a passing but important appearance in the novel.) Uncle Jake's compulsive bravado and unintentional cruelty come to seem inevitable and pathetic. One episode dealing with his fear of heights is particularly wrenching, as is a hint midway through the book that he already foresees his end.
But Hawkes captures his Alaskans alive; he never makes the book hold still for a session of character analysis. It zips along like the page-turner it is, and it is only in retrospect that one really appreciates its profundities. Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade is the most moving and accessible novel yet from one of the most distinguished of American writers. It should be with us for a long time.