John Hawkes' 'Frog': the new 'New Novel'

June 23, 1996|By Allen Barra | Allen Barra,Special to the Sun

"The Frog" by John Hawkes. Viking. 189 pages $21.95.

When John Hawkes was producing such novels as "Second Skin" and "Blood Oranges" in the late Sixties and early Seventies it was fashionable to refer to him as a foremost exponent of The New Novel or of - horrible word - "metafiction." Well, the New Novel has been around so long it's now starting to seem older than the Old Novel. Hawkes' newest New Novel, "The Frog," about a turn-of-the-century Frenchman who goes through life with a frog in his stomach, has all the familiar traits of a Hawkesian-New Novel: a fantastic (and phantastic) story line, poetic-cinematic prose, and a narrator who seems strangely unperturbed by the amazing events going on around him.

Or in this case, inside him. The narrator, Pascal, has, literally, a frog in his throat. It - Armand - crawled into Pascal's mouth one day when, at age 2, the boy dove into the frog pond in search of his beloved amphibious companion. The Armand stories bring together young Pascal's "two grand passions, the frog pond and my mother." Those wishing to interpret "The Frog" in psycho-sexual terms can jump in right here. Though, considering that Armand pops out of Pascal's mouth at the darndest times - like when he's having sex, for instance - whatever metaphor Hawkes is groping for might best be left unsaid.

Even if you don't like Hawkes, it's uncharitable not to credit hi as a remarkable wordsmith. Hawkes weaves sentences into dream-scape worlds that seem to spring fully-formed from his character's minds. "I bathed and lolled in all the profusion that was mine," says Pascal of his childhood on a nobleman's estate. "I was selective in the midst of bounty... I was severely judgmental about receiving and bestowing pleasure." Already, before puberty, the kid is a snob (he grows up to be a gourmet chef), and the air around him seems to rarely as he gets older. Armand's role is to help Pascal better select his pleasures, whether of artistic, gastronomic, or sexual nature. "Oh," he tells us, "that Armand was a clever fellow to intuit my deepest wishes and then to grant them by making me suffer as severely as he could in exchange." The suffering part is ok with Pascal, since, as he frequently reminds us, pleasure and pain are closely linked.

Which is true, but perhaps not so closely as Hawkes wants to believe. The author's tendency toward the sadomasochistic is merely one of the things that makes one queasy about Hawkes. For some, his overemphasis on fancy writing is alienating. Hawkes is often referred to as "a writer's writer," meaning, I assume, that he is best appreciated by writers who focus on language (i.e., form) than by readers who prefer a compelling story (a.k.a., content). In "The Frog," the glittering words don't build to anything as satisfying as a novel or even a fable - "The Frog's" perverseness seems calculated to disgust, and reading it is like eating through layers of sugar coated frosting to a foul-tasting cake. (And it's not half so funny as the Monty Python routine about the chocolate-covered frog.)

One puts down "The Frog" hungry for a real novel, Old or New, but one where the narrator knows to keep his mouth shut.

Allen Barra writes a regular sports column for the Wall Street Journal, and reviews regularly for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Oxford American. His biography of Wyatt Earp is to be published by Macmillan this year.

Pub Date: 06/23/96

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