I wish had read The Hottest State, Hawke's first novel, so that I could offer an early assessment of his oeuvre. Is Ash Wednesday a departure for him, with its adolescent fixation on true love overcoming adversity, or does it fit into a broader social diagnosis? Jimmy Heartsock (yes, seriously) is an angry, misanthropic, coke-snorting 30-year-old staff sergeant in the Army who has made the terrible mistake of dumping Christy Ann Walker, a purportedly intelligent and beautiful woman who, outlandishly, is in love with him. Sobering up and sensing his mistake, Jimmy goes crawling back, offering marriage by way of propitiation. Christy reluctantly accepts (Jimmy benefits by having unwittingly impregnated her) and the two begin a manic road trip in which they try to sort out the details of their future and the nature of their love.
Much of Ash Wednesday is revealed in the exhausting dialectic between Jimmy and Christy as they rehash every feeling they've experienced since puberty. The way the dialogue brims with simpering nonsense about love, souls and destiny, it resembles the teen novels of Lurlene McDaniel, where pure young love is forever being threatened by heartless parents or terminal disease. Jimmy and Christy are also fighting for purity, but in their case the baddies aren't real people or events, but the morass of insecurities, selfish inclinations and idiotic tendencies inside each of them.
As they both observe in each other, Jimmy and Christy have the maturity of children. The way they cope with marriage and pregnancy and real responsibility, they are like children given access to dangerous machinery. Most of these adult functions they manhandle, but the one thing they are really good at, and therefore do over and over again, is sex, and totally excellent sex at that. It is clearly the one thing that keeps them together, and so it is treated as a topic of grave importance. Jimmy is as pontificating as Plato when he says, "Christy has a fantastic pussy. I'm not saying that to be vulgar. I'm saying it because it's true.
But for all their incompetence, Jimmy and Christy are an immensely likable pair. Something in their perseverance to each other provokes a great deal of sympathy and camaraderie by the novel's end. They're like someone who walks into the glass pane of a door over and over again. At first you laugh at them or revile them, but by the eighth or ninth collision you're rooting for them to somehow make it through.
The same can be said for Hawke's writing. His words come pouring of the page in an impossible jumble of emotions and descriptions and flashbacks and digressions as if, like the formative Jimmy, Hawke was on some wicked crystal meth when he wrote them. The chapters (Jimmy and Christy both get first person space) should cohere with relative ease since they follow standard chronology, but it always took me pages before I could piece together how one narrative tied to the next.
But Hawke's worst offense is not being able to establish a consistent voice for Jimmy, the person frantically jawing at us for two-thirds of the book. Sometimes Jimmy is pricelessly down-home in his observations, offering up a feast of bon mots like "Literally all electrons and neutrons or whatever in my limbs had stopped dead," or, during his wedding, "reading all the blessings and vows got to me somehow." But a sentence later Jimmy is effortlessly using words like "didactic," "titillating," or "vacillate." Common editing could have fixed these discrepancies, but that would be a lot of work, and besides, then Hawke wouldn't be able to show off his considerable faculty with a thesaurus. My editorial advice would have been to begin the novel just after Jimmy had taken the GREs.
And still, sheer earnestness pulls Hawke through, and presumably will do so for his next opus. He has some touch too; it comes out in the nuances off-center to the story, in the sights or smells or side characters that are portrayed, for a change, calmly and gently and carefully. And if that's not enough to sway you to Ash Wednesday, do what I do whenever the plot became too confusing. Think of Hawke by his penthouse window, brooding over a gloomy Manhattan dusk, perhaps self-consciously touching his moustache like Jimmy or glancing in the mirror like Christy. Then think of him snapping his fingers and going to his laptop to scribe the following lines: "I'll say it. I'm gonna have affairs. I'll tell you that right now. As far as that goes, I got a cock and balls in my pocket, and baby they were meant to burn."
Why, it's enough to make you blush.