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John Hawkes: The Beetle Leg

Hawkes’ second novel has not attracted as much attention as his first, partially because it is considered more difficult than the first. It can be seen as a parody of the American West or, if you will, the American Western, or even a mocking of the American Dream. It is based on Hawkes’ own experience working on an irrigation dam in Montana. This novel is set in Government City and is about a dam. Ten years before the setting of the story, Mulge Lampson is buried alive while working on a dam. Indeed, it was the image of a man swimming in the mud that inspired Hawkes to write this story. When his brother Luke tries to find him in the mud, all Luke can find is a dead baby, which he returns to the mud.

The novel is set ten years after the accident. There is no plot but, rather, a series of portraits of various people and incidents, both current and related to the Great Slide. Some of them clearly relate to the traditional Western. There is a sheriff, a gang, even a shoot-out but this is no John Ford Western. The gang, for example, is a motorcycle gang which is just that – a gang, with no obvious individuals, whose noise disturbs the silence. The focus is to a certain degree on Lampson, even in death, but also on the dam, which is slowly sliding, giving Lampson movement even in death. The sliding dam, the characters who come in and then disappear, the strange landscape, all give the novel a surrealistic feel and, in particular, a non-traditional Western feel. Only the landscape remains.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by New Directions