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John Hawkes: The Cannibal

Hawkes’ first full-length novel was his World War II novel, based in part on his service as an ambulance driver. But anyone expecting The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity is in for a bit of a surprise. There is no linear plot, no heroes killing the bad guys, no soldiers cracking under stress, none of the stuff you would expect. The book is divided into three parts. The first and third parts take place in Germany just after the war. One-third of the conquered country is under the control of one man, a motorcyclist named Leevey. His nemesis is Zizendorf, who plans to overthrow Leevey (by placing a log across his path and then stealing his motorcycle) and then lead Germany on to the glory it missed out in World War II. These two parts point towards the future. The second part points towards the past, specifically World War I. Here we meet Stella Snow, whose father was a hero of the Franco-Prussian War, and her husband Ernst. We will meet her again in World War II. But the plot counts for little in this novel, except for the impending meeting of Leevey and Zizendorf. Hawkes, using an impressionistic, cinematic style, is clearly showing us that war is always there. One ends and the next one starts. The images of violence and brutality and, of course, cannibalism – a starving duke eats a young boy – make the point far better than Mailer and Jones did. Not an easy read but an interesting first novel.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by New Directions