Dialogue of the Skin: John Hawkes’ Travesty
You’re hurtling across a dark European countryside at dangerous speeds. Your driver boasts of his wish to kill himself, you, and his young daughter by soon plowing the car into a rock wall across a gorge. He’s driving too fast on roads too narrow for you to attack him at the wheel. To make it worse, like a villain in a James Bond film, he insists on telling you every way you’ve offended him, every detail of your impending death, interspersed with events from his own life. On top of that, he occasionally refers to you as cher ami in the snarkiest tone possible.
This is the torturously small, dark and barbed world of John Hawkes’ Travesty. Sounds like a fun place, right?
In Travesty, our narrator, a selfdescribed ‘privileged man’ has trapped a poet, his best friend, and his young daughter in the speeding car. He accuses the poet, in the seat next to him, of having affairs with both his wife and daughter. He wants to kill the three of them, leaving his wife to suffer but not before he states his case. He’s not defending himself, mind you, he’s simply laying out the inevitability and superior position of his own plan.
Because our narrator, so he says, knows everything. He knows every thought and feeling you might have and he finds them wanting. He’s examined every passion in his life dispassionately and can see each, like a bloodstain on a slide, with a perfect and pure vision. He bears no grudges and sees no real fault from the heights of his position. He’s ‘privileged’ that way.
These are things he explains as the engine roars around you and the black road flows by beneath. He explains it to you, the poet, the lover, his best friend. But he’s also explaining it you, the reader. Because you, the reader, are implicated. You, the reader, are being addressed directly. It is you who have violated both him and his world.
Yes, dead passion is the most satisfying, cher ami. You have hinted as much in your verses.
Dead passion is all our narrator has and so he must place it in a vaulted position. He’s lost the passion of his wife, a passion for his daughter, and the passion for a young mistress he remembers fondly but eventually abuses. He has attained his ‘privileged’ position by marrying his wife, a detail slowly revealed; but he has assumed it totally. It’s a position where everything is property and all people are objects. You, the best friend, the reader, are an object too and he has chosen what he believes to be a fitting end for you. But first, you must listen to him talk a bit more. He’s not justifying himself, mind you, he’s simply explaining your current position of helplessness at his hand.
What I have in mind is an ‘accident’ so perfectly contrived that it will be unique, spectacular and
instantaneous, a physical counterpart to that vision in which it was in fact conceived.
Because, you see, our narrator is an artist, though his artistry might be overlooked or misconstrued. Unlike the mere poet in the seat next to him, our narrator aspires to more than simply words on paper and must be appreciated for those aspirations. So he says.
When a phrase like ‘tears of poison’ slips from his mouth something is revealed our narrator probably doesn’t want us to see. He is not hurt. Of course not. He is above such petty concerns. The affairs of his wife and daughter are simply minor obstacles to be dealt with, like gassing the car or buying a newspaper. He does not feel the vile emotions commoners might. He is ‘privileged.’ So he says.
Still, it’s important for him to talk to you. It’s not a conversation though, it’s more like a lesson. And he’s not justifying himself, no, those in the right never need to. It’s more that he’s condescending to an explanation in the way you might explain to a dog that it’s about to be put down.
Hawkes’ genius in this book is to capture the voice—really the novel rests almost entirely on the voice of the narrator—the rhythm, the subtleties of phrasing, and the micro-reveals in which we see his true motivations, those moments when we glimpse what our narrator cannot himself see.
As the car accelerates, whipping loosely around curves and rattling between the stone walls of a small village, you can’t believe for a moment that you might escape this discourse on the illusion of power and the pathetic avoidance of powerlessness. You’ll have to listen to every word, as your captor explains the brilliant reasons for his, and your, impending immolation.
But you’re the reader. What do you want from a novel? A fast paced story with emotional beats and a climax of redemption? A parlor mystery that assures you villains always come to bad ends? A tale that reinforces your pre-existing values again and again? Or an oblique character study of privilege, acid-black and comic? That’s what you have here.
You can get in the car or you can beg off, either way it’s up to you. But, in the world of John Hawkes, don’t believe for a moment you won’t be judged for your decision. !
STEVE MITCHELL’S short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC