Adventures In The Alaskan Skin Trade by John Hawkes

Hawkes had been on my mental list for a while, since he seemed to be grouped with some Postmodernist writers I love – there are blurbs on the back of this from Barth, Gass and Barthelme, rather confirming that – but I’d not got around to him until now. Oddly, what I liked best about this seemed to have very little to do with Postmodernism.

In the ’60s, Sunny is running a brothel in an Alaskan town, but most of this is flashbacks to the ’30s, when she was a kid, and her dad was a big, colourful character, brave and adventurous and very upright. I kept expecting the yarns to get more over the top, less real, but they stay just about within reasonable bounds, lively and big without being really fantastic. The central characters are memorable ones, but there didn’t seem anything in this that qualifies it as PoMo, really.

The reason I loved it and will look for more by Hawkes is the prose – this is something that many of the best American PoMo writers are pretty ordinary in (I mean, I love Barth and there is intelligence in every sentence he writes, but he’s not a great stylist). Hawkes isn’t a beautiful, flowery, lyrical writer with extraordinary metaphors, like my other big favourite prose stylists (Updike, Harrison). With him it’s about rhythm – his prose sings and bounces like no other I’ve come across. Listen to this opening: “Where are you, Dad? To the north. To the west. To the far north and the receding west. Where the seas are black and the fish dead. Where the rivers flow and the mountains rise. Where the fog drifts and the rain falls…” No unusual images, all plain language, but it reads like very good poetry. This could have been about anything at all, and it would still have been an absolute joy to read. A writer like this surely can only have produced excellent books, and I’ll read them all.