Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway. New Directions. $15.95, 288pp.
One could easily call Keith Ridgeway’s new book Hawthorn & Child a story collection, but one could also just as easily call it a novel. The fact that its publisher, New Directions, claims it’s a novel in the back cover copy resolves nothing.
What precisely has Ridgway done with this book? We get the beginnings of an answer from the third-person narrator in the story “Rothko Eggs.” While telling us what the main character likes and dislikes about art, he also sheds some light on the nature of Ridgway’s accomplishment. The narrator tells us,
She liked art. She liked paintings and video art and photography. She liked to read about artists and hear them talk . . . She liked the way the world looked and felt one way when you looked at it or breathed or walked about, and looked another way completely when you looked at art, even though you recognized that the art was about the world . . . She didn’t mean realism. She didn’t like realism very much really, because usually there was no room in it. She would look at it, and everything was already there.
It’s the working against this already-there-ness of realism that allows Ridgway’s book to do something for the reader that I haven’t experienced in quite some time. Hawthorn & Child gives us the idea of a novel, much in the same was as Jackson Pollock gives us a painting. Soon after we learn the young woman’s feelings about art, her father asks her if she likes Pollock’s paintings, and she responds with a simple “Yeah.” Her father asks, “Not so much though?” wondering, perhaps, why her response lacks enthusiasm. “Well,” she continues, “I like them. They’re fun. I’d like to see them for real, because the paint is meant to be really thick and that would be amazing to see them up close. But they’re like . . . ” she pauses just long enough to allow her father to complete her sentence with, “A mess.” She tells him, “No. They’re like the idea of having an idea, instead of having an idea.” And that’s what Hawthorn & Child is. It’s the idea of a novel.
Books are published all the time that rely on the classic novelistic tropes that guarantee a satisfying emotional experience. Alternatively, plenty of books rely on the “non-traditional” tropes of experimental literature that guarantee a satisfying intellectual experience. Somehow, Ridgway has written a book that accomplishes both.
* * * *
Hawthorn and Child are London-based detectives with a boss named Rivers (father to the art-loving daughter) who breathes down their necks about chasing down a crime boss named Mishazzo. Mishazzo’s driver is in love with a girl that, like the driver, isn’t very good with words, so to solve the problem the two of them write intimate passages to each other in a notebook that they share in their apartment. One night they must vacate, because it’s possible that Mishazzo has discovered that the driver, who Hawthorn and Child have picked up and turned into a CI, has, in fact, become a CI and is feeding the police information, and therefore Mishazzo will probably want the driver dead and so the two, driver and girl, abandon their apartment and make a break for Spain in the hope of survival. That’s one “storyline.”
Hawthorn, a gay, London-based detective, who goes to nightclubs where he hooks up with various men in some rather intense sexual acts, is obsessed with the possibility that a young man named Daniel, who was “shot by a car,” is telling the truth when he says that the car was old, and, the reader maybe assumes, the car came from the past to end Daniel’s life, while, in the meantime, Hawthorn dates a football (soccer) referee that sees not only ghosts but also past versions of people he knows. That is another “storyline.”
Child, a black, London-based detective, who seems just about done with being a policeman and is somewhat really just the shell of a man, chases down a schizophrenic named Moss, who seems to have completely lost his mind (this may have something to do with his wife either leaving him or dying, all we really know is that she was mad about figurines). He’s broken into a house and taken an infant hostage and in commission of this grievous felony tells Child the story of the Association of Christ Sejunct, which is an organization that believes in the many stories of Jesus’s missing years and now that Child has heard of the organization he is automatically a member of it. This is yet another “storyline.”
When the plots are described this way, what I find most interesting about them is how untrue they feel. My facts are straight. All these things occur in the book. And yet, when cobbled together in this way they bespeak a zaniness that they don’t really have. In truth, these stories are very real, they are very grounded, they are, at times, practically brimming with verisimilitude.
In the midst of these rather strange, rather strangely told stories, Ridgway achieves some rather beautiful, emotional moments. For instance, in the story “Goo Book,” the one about the driver for the crime boss, the couple decides to expand their sex-life by tying each other up with ropes and collars. The driver, who is also a pickpocket, discovers that when the sex becomes too intense and “they sometimes had to stop, a little spooked, sweating and laughing suddenly,” he experiences “a sort of leftover embarrassment.” His girlfriend tells him that she’s only better at it because she isn’t “as self-conscious about the whole thing,” and yet this isn’t a criticism. She tells him there’s hope, that he’s “used to trying to touch people so that they didn’t notice.” She continues, explaining that “he had to practise . . . and he’d get better.” There’s something so intimate about this moment. So true to life. And yet Ridgway is finding this deep intimacy in what seems like the most unlikeliest of places. He’s showing us what good fiction can do. And he shows us this over and over again.
* * * *
And so, how does this book work? How does it function as a form? How did it allow me to watch my own mind do what it naturally does, what, it seems, it can’t help but do, which is create an overarching narrative out of nothing more than a series of individual stories revolving around no one story in particular? It would be easy to create a narrative if Ridgway offered a focal point, a single central incident, no matter how many different perspectives the stories are told from. But Hawthorn & Child has no central event to tie together all the many perspectives. Hawthorn & Child has no narrative glue.
The best place to start in order to properly explain this accomplishment is to return to the story “Rothko Eggs.” I believe I continue to return to this story, not because it’s the strongest of the batch (my vote for that goes to “Goo Book”) but because “Rothko Eggs” is the story most narratively separate from all the others. In almost all of the other stories, Hawthorn and Child, or Hawthorn or Child, take, if not a starring role, at least a strong member of the supporting cast. But in this one they exist only for a moment, and only in the corner of the narrative’s eye.
As I mentioned before, the story is about a young woman, high school age, who is the daughter of Rivers, Hawthorn and Child’s boss. The narrative mainly concerns the young woman’s coming of age. She meets a young man and they begin to hang out, eventually kissing and leading to her loss of virginity. To a certain extent one could say that this is what the story is “about.” Like the other stories, it can stand alone, and, like the other stories, it reaches a level of intimacy between two characters that feels so very true. For example, while riding the train together, the girl and the young man hold hands. We learn that,
She liked when they had to let go for some reason and then she’d wait to see how long it took him to reach out for her again. Sometimes it wasn’t quick enough and she grabbed his hand, and she liked that she felt able to do that, and liked that it made him smile.
This passage speaks to the longing that many of the characters in the book face: wanting to be loved and to love in return. And for those readers who have experienced this type of romance, the one where we’re reminded how nice it is to be able “to do that,” whatever “that” may be (holding hands, stealing a kiss, placing a hand on the other’s upper back and rubbing gently) there is an emotion that exists in that touch, whatever form it takes, that simply cannot be beat. It’s a wonder that Ridgway is able to fit this moment into a story that is connected to so much strangeness and in that strangeness so much trauma. But it’s in the connections between “Rothko Eggs” and the other stories that we find a great argument for the value of anti-realism, because even though “Rothko Eggs” is a simple coming of age story, what it relates to, what it connects back to contains the emotional magic of real life.
Let’s start with the suicide. The girl’s father pays a visit to her mother (the girl’s parents are separated and seem to have been for quite some time). At first the girl is confused by the visit:
Something was up. Something had happened. They talked in the kitchen, and she couldn’t hear a thing. It was good, she supposed, that they weren’t shouting at each other. But it was creepy too. There wasn’t a sound.
Her father explains, telling his daughter, “It’s not about us. Ask your mother what it’s about. She can tell you if she wants. Up to her.” And so she the girl asks her mother. At first the girl thinks the story is made up. Some type of tactic to scare her, “Because it was that story. About the pretty clever girl who everyone knows is going to turn out to be a genius but she starts to drink . . . And eventually . . . she hangs herself in the kitchen.”
We learn, a little over 60 pages later, in the story titled “The Referee,” what “hangs herself in the kitchen” really means. Hawthorn and Child are called to the scene of a suicide (or, as Ridgway has it, they “went to a hanging in Kentish Town”). The way in which this woman has hanged herself is one of the more creative and more grotesque suicides I have ever read. She has run a cable from outside her house up and through the exhaust system above her stove, wrapped the cable around her neck, lit the burners, and dangled herself, choking, above the flames. When Hawthorn and Child arrive, finding police officers vomiting in disgust, they vomit too, and then they puzzle over how she accomplished such a feat.
Now, this story is sad on its own. Hawthorn and Child speak about Rivers’s relationship to the victim. They find a photo of the two of them together. They wonder if she knew Rivers would be on duty that day, and if she put together her suicide in such a way as to send a message to him. All of this is emotionally devastating. But what is it that makes it so goddamn poignant? The answer is in the way in which the book is structured, in the form, the way we, as reader-cum-detective, gather the information.
Between “Rothko Eggs” and “The Referee” are two other stories. The first, “Marching Songs” (a story so weak compared to the others that it could be ripped from the book wholesale and we would be none the wiser), is about a man who is convinced he has been poisoned by a needle that pierced his skin and injected some type of “device” into his bloodstream the one time he shook hands with Tony Blair. The second, “The Association of Christ Sejunct,” is one I’ve already mentioned above, about the crazy man who kidnaps a baby. Not much of either “Rothko Eggs” or ”The Referee” can be found in either of those stories. And so, as a reader moving from “Rothko Eggs” toward the end of the book, we’re not even sure that this suicide will be revisited. In fact, we never know what will or won’t be revisited, until the book is finished, and, in this way, Ridgway has created a page-turner without creating a page-turning plot.
But the suicide does resurface. When it does, we learn of it and its relation to Lieutenant Rivers, and then we connect that back to the girl, his daughter. If we’ve been paying attention, we’ll remember the scene where her father confessed that not only was this woman someone that he knew, it was someone that he loved, and we’ll remember the girl’s initial confusion about the story, and we’ll remember the way it originally formed as a peripheral story to her parents’ lives and that it sat in the background of her own story of young love. That admixture of approaches and information-surfacing will coalesce into a narrative that we ourselves create, providing an experience, the story as we’ve made it, a poignancy that is usually only found in the most realistic of novels. It’s quite an accomplishment.
The other aspect of the book that is provided by this fractured “narrative” style is the formation of details. The first time I read this book, I only knew Child was black and Hawthorn was gay because the back of the book told me so. I was at a loss as to how in the world we were to know these things. Ridgway is very light on descriptive details. The most we know of Hawthorn is that he has a funny-face. As for Child, we know he wears glasses at the tip of his nose so far at the tip he has to tilt his head back to look through them while he drives. But on my second reading I located the detail about Child’s race. It, too, is in “Rothko Eggs.” The girl is hanging out with her father at a cafe when two men come in to talk to him. They aren’t familiar to her and so they don’t get called by name in this particular story, we only learn that,
The one talking was a really good-looking black man with dark framed glasses and hair shaved close to his head. He was wearing a dark grey suit . . . his tie done up. He looked really interesting. The other one was a white guy with a funny face. Like he was peeking through a keyhole . . . They didn’t look like police.
We know they have come to talk to Rivers. We know one wears glasses and the other has a funny face. Earlier in the book in a different story we learn that Hawthorn and Child work for Rivers, that Hawthorn wears glasses and Child has a funny face. And so, my mind took this info and put it together and all the sudden Child was black and Hawthorn was white. But technically, there could have been two other detectives on the force, one with glasses and one with a funny face and that’s who could have been visiting with Rivers. It’s circumstantial evidence, and the book practically brims with it. I experienced my brain as it put it all together on what amounts to shaky ground and realized I do this all the time in real life. Ridgway is showing us, in the so-famous-as-to-be-cliched words of Joan Didion, how we “tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Ridgway has been publishing for years, and his books in the past all connect to this book. There’s suicide, murder, homoeroticism, the destructive nature of automobiles, the struggles of fatherhood, religion, and word play in all of his works, including Hawthorn & Child. But until now, he’s never played with structure so loosely. His writing style (terse, quick sentencing, coupled with a third-person narrative so inside the characters it feels like first-person most of the time) lends itself quite well to a fractured narrative, but up until now, the plots to all his books have run linearly, they’ve all had an arch. By removing the keystone of the traditional climax, one would think the book would fall apart, and yet the readers who can bear the weight, are able to hold it in place for themselves. For those who love this book, and it might take more than one reading (I, myself, did not love this book, barely liked it even, until after reading it twice), this love will exist as a result of the reader having done some work, made some connection with the text in a way unlike any text they may have read before. Ridgway turns the reader into a detective, but it’s a style of investigation the reader should know well. It’s the style we readers live our lives in.
Alex Estes is a literary critic living in New York City. You can check out his website at deskofalex.com, or you could follow him on twitter @deskofalex, or you could do both.
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