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Ethan Hawke's 'Ash Wednesday': escape from vanity


Ash Wednesday, by Ethan Hawke. Alfred A. Knopf. 220 pages. $22.95.

Some novels sprawl ambitiously over the whole social fabric, others nestle within a single consciousness. The latter kind, focusing inward after a fashion perfected a hundred years ago by Henry James, takes the individual interior life as a favored site for exploration, a vast microcosmos rife with curiosities and prone to interesting revolutions. This is the type of novel that Ethan Hawke has written in his earnest, searching Ash Wednesday, where he attempts to trace the workings of a quiet transformation within an ordinary man.

Trying to get inside a different person's skin and show the world from his point of view is a fitting artistic choice for someone whose primary work is acting -- which might be seen as the art of getting someone else inside one's own skin. Hawke is still a better actor than writer (see, for example, his work in Hamlet [2000]), but Ash Wednesday marks a leap forward from his debut 1996 East Village love story The Hottest State, and shows that he's not just playing around.

In Hawkes' second novel, he does a more than creditable job of inhabiting the singular perspective of James Heartsock, a staff sergeant, guy's guy and likable ne'er-do-well who joined the army because "that movie Top Gun put me over the edge." The novel opens half a day after Jimmy has dumped his girlfriend Christy, and his now wanting her back is what sets its marriage plot in motion.

Jimmy has an authentic voice. He is belligerent and fragile, irreverent and a real sap -- and he veers among these modes as hectically as the novel's action moves from Albany to New York City to Ohio to New Orleans to Texas. The very first paragraph establishes his compromised condition of self-awareness about his character flaws but insufficient interest in changing them: "I'll stare into anything that reflects. That's not a flattering quality, and I wish I didn't do it, but I do. I'm vain as all hell. It's revolting."

As the novel proceeds, you can practically notch Jimmy's progress like so many promotions through the ranks of enlightened male selfhood, from his initial embracement of the "young man's world, full of young men's toys" that is military culture to his ultimate sanguine contemplation of a family life.

At times, the learning experiences he undergoes are all too obvious. When talking to his boyhood priest about his past as the son of a damaged man and his future as a father and husband himself, Jimmy breaks down crying, and the scene may as well be signposted as a Big Emotional Breakthrough. Besides telegraphing the importance of moments like this one, the novel gets less interesting input from Christy, who narrates fully half of it. And, surprisingly for an actor of his talent, Hawke has an ear of genuine tin when it comes to dialogue.

Ash Wednesday insists upon the difficulty, even drudgery, of grown-up love, but often slips into romanticizing its own pragmatism. While not the subtlest novel of the summer, it is very readable and contains some nice moments when what seems everyday comes into focus as in fact extraordinary, at least on the scale of an individual life.

Laura Demanski studies Victorian literature at the University of Chicago. She is completing a dissertation about representations of the London poor in the writing of Henry James, Arthur Morrison and other late-19th-century novelists. She previously worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Her reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune as well as The Sun.

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