by Douglas Messerlli
John Hawkes The Beetle Leg (New York: New Directions, 1951)
Except for his Alaskan novel, Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade, The Beetle Leg is Hawkes’s only fiction in which the action is located in America. Hawkes has plenty of American characters in his oeuvre, but on the beaches of Greek islands and other exotic locations they become figures that might be just as at home on the moon. Hawkes, or perhaps his publisher, even titled a collection of his short works Lunar Landscapes. The Beetle Leg, which purports to be a Western, might as well also be lunar located, and indeed much of its action occurs in the moonlit desert. In its near lunatic story, moreover, it would be difficult to speak of plot. Let us just say it’s “story,” if you have to have one, concerns the various comings and goings, loves and deaths, of a group of characters living in the isolated desert encampments of Mistletoe, Government City, and the nearest “town,” Clare. The Sheriff, the Lampson Brothers, Ma, Cap Leech, Finn Mandan, Thegna, Harry Bohn, the Red Devils and the intruders—Camper, his wife Lou and their rattlesnake-bitten son—are figures in this unlikely tale, as prickly and isolated as the desert landscape, and as dangerous and hostile as the mosquitoes, lizards and snakes that inhabit it.
If the character names sound like they’re from early Djuna Barnes stories it is no coincidence; Hawkes has often been compared to Barnes. His insistence that he read her work long after he had begun his own writing only reiterates that there is an authentic strain of Gothic exaggeration in American culture; and, like Barnes, Hawkes’ exploration of that tradition has helped to make him one of the most noted of American writers.
The Beetle Leg is not so much about the American West as it is about how a desolated landscape and near complete isolation affects its inhabitants. Not only is the world of Misletoe, Gov. City, and Clare naturally harsh, but the absurd creation of a dam, which clearly does not properly function and gives way from time to time to catastrophic mud slides, makes these outposts nearly uninhabitable. In a world, moreover, with very few unmarried women, sexuality is ambiguous. In their violence, the men of The Beetle Leg seem also to gather themselves into almost sexual postures—dance, incessant touching, and a camaraderie that far outweighs their detestation of each other. Women are shared and, even in the marriage we witness, the groom/child spends the night, not with the bride, but with another. In such an environment, violence is nearly palpable, and the novel ends with a cathartic and horrible release of tension as the men gather to shoot down the motorcycling tribe of local Indians, the Red Devils. The passion and affirmation these figures nonetheless display is astounding. The life force is everywhere, Hawkes seems to argue, and these raw aggregates of clay and straw live by pure American pluck, perpetual pioneers in an already settled planet.
Train from Münich to Rome, October 15, 2003