Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Beetle Leg by John Hawkes

It was a sarcophagus of mud.  It filled the gap between the lesser hills and prevented, by raising spit and shoals to sight, the flag flying traffic of river boats where a few had glittered in the night and crawled before.  The dam caused to be beached the homemade leaking skiffs of ranchers whose land backed up to the mud colored misty fathoms trailing seaward.  Where once bleak needles and spines had popped crookedly from the banks and a few flowers increasingly withered into the plain and disappeared, only the dust from the southward slope, swirling into the air, and a few animal bones and tin cans from a still deeper generation, survived.  One small city of the plain lasted to welcome the tourist trade and issue reports on the depth of the almost foreign, dark pan of water.

The beetle leg of The Beetle Leg is the infinitesimal tilt of the dam outside the western town of Government City: "Visitors hung their mouths and would not believe, and yet the hill eased down the rotting shale a beetle's leg each several anniversaries."  The dam has come to define the lives of the people living in the area.  Its mutability is a threat, a reminder that the settlements they have built are impermanent on a less than cosmic scale; eventually the dam will fall and the towns will be destroyed.  It's already claimed one life: that of Mulge Lampson, who is obsessively remembered by not only his brother Luke, who spends his days spreading flower-seeds upon the hill that swallowed up is brother in the Great Slide, and Mulge's widow Ma, but everyone in town.

McCarthy fans will recognize in The Beetle Leg an appealing combination of the Western and the grotesque.  One character is a thirty-year old man beset by so many deformities that he looks three times his age.  His grotesqueness, we understand, is because he was cut out of the belly of his deceased mother, and he is "drawn to the expressionless genitals of animal."  Okay.  Another character, Cap Leech, is a quack medicine man who travels around in a baroque red wagon that serves as office and home.  There is a menacing group of bikers called the Red Devils around town, gunning their motorcycles and generally up to no good.  Like a good Western, The Beetle Leg culminates with the Sheriff rounding up a posse to take out the Red Devils, though it's never clear whether the Red Devils deserve to be taken out, or whether the posse is a manifestation of senseless animal violence spurred by the existential vacuity of life beneath the dam.

But I found a more meaningful similarity between Hawkes and Djuna Barnes, whose Nightwood, like The Beetle Leg, often left me with the singular response, What the fuck did I just read?  The language, while spare and sere in the familiar McCarthy style, is deliberately obscure, eliding obvious referents, throwing up clauses like boulders fallen on desert roads, and focusing on the evocative at the expense of the realistic.  But Barnes' tricky, slippery novel has at its heart a real human yearning.  Hawkes, who famously said that the "enemies of the novel" were "plot, character, setting, and theme" refuses to provide any recognizable human motivations to anyone.  The realest emotions belong to the women: Mulge's mother Hattie, who is buried at her request upside down in the hill so that she can look down at her son lost in the earth, and Ma, who wanders the hill trying to find her lost husband's burying place: "Miles from the Lampson place, seated quietly in the middle of acres which only Luke dared tread upon in daylight, Ma moaned and nodded as if she had lost him only the day before."

Too often I found myself unsure of the very basic facts of what I was reading.  Is a scene late in the book when Luke, fishing, hooks a dead infant, meant to be taken literally?  I'm not even sure why he's fishing in the first place, or how he got to the lake from where he just was.  I guess this is what is meant by "experimental fiction."  I don't mean to be snide.  I think if you read The Beetle Leg ten times, you might come to a fine appreciation of its sheer weirdness, its slippery prose, its bleak vision of a Western frontier bleached of the mythological grandeur of the human spirit we often apply to it.  But the first reading left me frustrated more than fascinated.

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