Nobody reads John Hawkes (1925-1998) anymore. I have never been clear on why that is, but if you want to get to know him (and why not? he’s very good) then The Lime Twig (1961) is possibly the best introduction you could get, featuring both his inimitable prose style and a suspenseful plot that, at first glance puzzling, is easy enough to follow once you adjust to his style of storytelling – much as the blurred cover does portray perfectly normal figures once your eye sorts it out. As an aside, a “lime-twig” is a snare to catch birds. Knowing this straight away helps to improve the title … somewhat.
Hawkes’ distinguishing trademark is a strong sense of place, creating bad dreams out of familiar, broadly evoked landscapes. Though he preached against traditional plot and character, his is not the no man’s land of crazy surrealism. Hawkes’ sense of place is archetypal, perhaps heavyhanded, but omnipresent and overpowering. The Lime Twig‘s setting is England after the war, bombed out and drudging along. English grime, soot and rain. English flats, stables and wharves. Every page of this slim novel exudes a damp, gray, miserable weariness that is highly exaggerated and strangely familiar – as familiar as that quaint and proper England of vicarages and village greens. This alluring, disordered dreamscape is the most memorable component of The Lime Twig, such that it stuck with me for three long years. Eventually I just had to revisit the book.
The story follows Michael and Margaret Banks, a drab couple who are dragged into the criminal underworld by Michael’s unwise decision to take part in a racehorse scam. He becomes the front for a pack of professional crooks, seduced into it by his own worst dream, and best … a horse which was itself the flesh of all violent dreams… Margaret has no say in the matter and is simply taken along for the ride. Their ambiguous tenant Hencher – “My old girl died on these premises, Mr. Banks.” - provides the connection between the couple and the (many) gangsters: among them head honcho Larry; ex-corporal Sparrow with his rotten legs and frequent injections; Little Dora, who looks like a school teacher; Thick, armed with truncheon and ropes; and Dora’s sister Sybilline (to whom falls the task of “distracting” Michael).
Rounding out the dramatis personae are the horse Rock Castle, who has run beyond memory itself and is described in purely Gothic terms as a spectral bringer of death: …and he was staring down at all the barge carried in its hold: the black space, the echo of bilge and, without movement, snort or pawing of hoof, the single white marble shape of the horse, whose neck (from where he leaned over, trembling, on the quay) was the fluted and tapering neck of some serpent, while the head was an elongated white skull with nostrils, eye sockets, uplifted gracefully in the barge’s hold… And not forgetting Sidney Slyter, who leads off every chapter with excerpts from his racing column. He keeps tabs on what goes on and it’s from his inquiries that the more lucid (relatively speaking) details of the scam emerge. He’s the closest thing to a private investigator this crime story contains, and that’s not saying much.
The Lime Twig could be considered a genre exercise, but the plot is a thoroughly minor point. Hawkes is all about the writing. Crime fiction offered him delicious set-pieces – murder in a steam bath, smuggling on a fog-bound dock, intimidation in a public restroom, etc, etc. One feels he isn’t caught up in the drama but is simply enchanted by what his imagination has produced. There’s a subtle amiability in the author’s voice and that the end result remains so eerie and atmospheric is a credit to his writing ability: It is dark in Highland Green, dark in this public stable which lies so close to the tanks and towers of the gasworks that a man, if he wished, might call out to the old watchman there. Dark at 3 A.M. and quiet; no one tends the stables at night and only a few spiritless horses for hire are drowsing in a few of the endless stalls. Hardly used now, dead at night, with stray dogs and little starved birds making use of the stalls, and weeds choking the yard. Refuse fills the well, there is a dry petrol pump near a loft building intended for hay.
Hawkes’ style is hypnotic and oddly beautiful, even when describing filth, but it takes some getting used to. When violence breaks out he prefers to layer it in confusion. Clarity returns only as he describes the body left behind (His throat was womanly white and fiercely slit and the blood poured out. It was coming down over the collar bone, and above the wound the face was drained and slick with its covering of steam. One hand clutched the belly as if they had attacked him there and not in the neck at all.) – leaving the reader to wonder what the motivation was. That the plot doesn’t entirely hang together is hardly surprising but it doesn’t damage the narrative. It actually succeeds in making it more sinister, as the killers’ actions become more random, senseless and secretive.
The Lime Twig could be considered a prime example of style over substance, but who needs a moral and meaning attached to everything one reads? John Hawkes is one of the great discoveries waiting for the adventurous reader, with a Gothic imagination put to truly creative use. His alluring style is the main draw, but it also presents obstacles to overcome – this second read of mine revealed several mistakes I’d made about the storyline in the first go round, and even the New Directions cover copy struggles with the plot. You can untangle all the important bits if you want to take the time, or if not, you can simply choose to be swept along by the imagery, to conclude puzzled yet intoxicated. “What was that?”