"Semaphore," by G.W. Hawkes. MacMurray and Beck. 223pages. $17.
The ability to speak seems the most readily taken for granted of our natural capacities. Speech is immediate, after all, expressive, where hearing and vision are receptive. The sighted, moreover, can conceptualize blindness; the hypothetical "what if were deaf" hardly overextends imagination's reach.
But to see and hear, and not be able to talk? The very thought looses a small, incipient terror. To borrow the imperative title of Roy A. Gallant's landmark 1969 study, Man must speak.
Joseph, 11-year-old central figure in G. W. Hawkes "Semaphore," is mute, though for no discernible physical reason. His vision, intact, incorporates frequent and fitful glimpses of the future: his 6-year-old sister's drowning, his parents' slow decay, his own marriage and its consequences. Yet he chooses his communications carefully, often disclosing far less than he knows.
An intriguing premise. But then, Hawkes, whose short fiction has appeared in the Atlantic and other major periodicals, seems at home with intriguing premises. His "Surveyor," published simultaneously with "Semaphore," parses the multi-layered friendship of two men who have spent decades in the New Mexico desert, living and working side by side on an assignment they know to be fraudulent.
Not much "happens" in either novel, at least in any physical or external sense. The substance of "Semaphore" is Joseph's carefully measured communication with his parents; with an intuitively kindly neighbor; with a solicitous, though often obtuse, doctor; even with the woman who will become his wife.
Hawkes is fascinated with communication, the levels on which it functions and the ofttimes startling forms it takes. Tormented by the image of his sister's impending death, Joseph commandeers an earth-moving machine and, in what may be an act of anticipatory vengeance, drives it into a neighbor's swimming pool, the very place where, soon enough, she will drown.
But even here, communication goes awry. His intention was only to dump earth back into the pool, not wreck the vehicle. And, worse yet, he seems to have settled his score with the wrong hole in the ground.
Hawkes is skillful in using shifts of tense and person to differentiate time and place in Joseph's inner vision. Yet, overall, "Semaphore's" effect is of a vessel rather too slender for its subject matter: too much is implied, unrealized, for example, in the three-way interaction of mother, father and son; other, enticing characters seem little more than preliminary sketches, as if intended for later and fuller treatment.
The language, by contrast, occasionally seems overloaded with metaphor. "At dawn," says one passage, "a circle of yellow machines unwound like metal thread from an invisible spool and darted or lumbered, each to its task, into Joseph's birthright. He clapped his hands over his ears against the labored coughs and metal-shearing screams of those tracked tons, and against the clouds of dirt that hummed and shimmered with the invisible beat of giant insect wings, and against the gunshots of felled trees."
Such saturation is jarring. The jump-cut flashes forward and back, the layering of images in Joseph's mind, seem to demand language of transparent, even austere, clarity.
Still, Hawkes is a watcher and a listener, for whom detail, whether individual or aggregate, confers meaning. Like his Joseph, he finds unusual, sometimes unique ways of speaking, and herein lies his - and his book's - true strength.
Richard M. Sudhalter is trumpet soloist on recordings, concert and soundtracks. A UPI correspondent in Europe for 10 years, he wrote "Lost Chords" and is the principal author of "Bix: Man and Legend."
Pub Date: 8/02/98