Three New Novels Give Quiet People a Voice
By G.W. Hawkes
MacMurray & Beck
222 pp., $19
By G.W. Hawkes
MacMurray & Beck
250 pp., $20
CHEEKIE: A CHILD OUT OF THE DESIRE
By Clarence Nero
Council Oak Books
276 pp., $18.95
The simultaneous issuance of two first novels by one author may be unusual in the world of publishing, but it's not unusual for a diligent writer to produce several novels in the time it takes to find a publisher.
G.W. Hawkes makes his debut as a novelist with the concurrent publication of two full-fledged works, "Semaphore" and "Surveyor."
Hawkes is clearly a writer's writer. Both novels are finely wrought, constructed with lapidary skill. Each spreads before us a uniquely strange landscape reflecting the peculiar perspective of its protagonist.
Surveyor gives us a desolate expanse of New Mexican desert. Paul Merline and his Korean War buddy John Suope have been living there for 30 years. Back in 1957, they were hired to map the terrain for a mysterious foundation, but the men have no idea why the foundation wants this information.
There have been subtle signs of disturbances in the field: measurements that don't seem right and new people disturbing their desert solitude. A pretty young cinema student named Caliope is building a fake town on a flood plain in order to film its destruction by water. A team of archaeologists is digging for prehistoric bones and fossils. John and Paul soon get to work obstructing the archaeologists, although they don't seem to mind the filmmaker.
Hawkes describes his protagonists in immense detail. Unfortunately, his heroes may well strike many readers as a pair of boring, mean-spirited "grumpy old men." Yes, the starkness and simplicity of their lives is effectively evoked, and perhaps one can find symbolic meaning in their story, which has all the trappings of what used to be called an "existential parable." But Hawkes has not quite solved the problem of how to make his characters' laconic, dull lives interesting to the reader.
In Semaphore the hero is an extraordinary boy who cannot speak but who has the double-edged gift of being able to see events in the future. Joseph Taft's precognitive flashes often have the unfortunate result of alarming him without giving him any clue as to how to articulate his insights or avoid what may be potential disasters. Unfortunately, he takes proactive steps that sometimes turn out to be almost as disastrous as the disasters they were meant to avert.
Hawkes narrates in the third person, but very much from Joseph's perspective. After a while, the lad's inability to use language becomes rather irritating, seeming, in some ways, more like unwillingness than inability. Because Joseph's story is told from his viewpoint in lucid, writerly language, we can't help suspecting that he might speak fluently if he chose to do so!
"Surveyor" is a meditation on art and on the loneliness, frustrations, and elusive satisfaction of doing work whose ultimate value one can't know. "Semaphore" is a less convincing attempt to examine the nature of communication.
But this undoubtedly gifted writer seems to have become so enamored of his own symbols and metaphors that he's neglected to bring his characters to life. Despite Hawkes's well-honed technical skills and the originality of his subject matter, both novels still read too much like accomplished exercises for an advanced creative-writing class.
A bright, sassy little boy is the eponymous narrator and hero of Clarence Nero's first novel, Cheekie. Young Charles Webb III, a.k.a. Cheekie, grows up in a New Orleans housing project. The Desire Project was once a pleasant, hopeful place, but over the years has degenerated, thanks to the increase of violence, drugs, and crime. Cheekie has seen an equally steep decline in his parents' marriage.
From what he's been told, "their romance was almost like Romeo and Juliet." They fell madly in love and married young in defiance of parental wishes. "But," as the little boy astutely observes, "that's no longer the case, 'cause now things seem to be getting worse and worse around here every day." After suffering a beating, his mother orders his father to leave for good.
As the oldest and favorite child of a vivacious, sometimes irresponsible young mother, Cheekie survives a succession of live-in "fathers" who usually end up abusing his mother. He's the kind of child who's wide awake long after the grownups think he's asleep, the proverbial little pitcher with big ears. This makes him a lively, indiscreet, sometimes hilarious, often poignant narrator, who paints a vibrant, emotionally intense picture of his family and neighbors.
Clarence Nero evokes both the humorous and the more horrific aspects of what it's like to grow up as the child of parents who are only just starting to grow up themselves.
* Merle Rubin reviews regularly for the Monitor.