August 2, 2002

“Ash Wednesday” by Ethan Hawke

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to the Seattle Times

If Ethan Hawke were not already a famous actor, his second novel, “Ash Wednesday” (Knopf, $22.95), might make him a well-known novelist in the much smaller way novelists are known. He’s written the sort of joyously tortured book that guys in their 20s like to carry around and quote to girls over coffee and cigarettes.

When his first novel was published in 1997, one critic wrote: “Somewhere between astronauts walking on the moon and poodles walking on their hind legs lies the accomplishment of actors writing books.”

It would be easy to review Hawke with a variation on that sentiment, but the truth is, this is a good book.

Hawke has advanced substantially from his first novel, a Salingeresque story about a young actor.

One of the best things I can say about this book, ironically enough, is that it wouldn’t make a good movie. It’s about character, language and ideas.

And the main idea is love.

Jimmy Heartsock, a staff sergeant in the Army, breaks up with his pregnant girlfriend, Christy, and then 15 hours later goes AWOL and chases her down at a bus station and proposes. Christy is understandably skeptical, but she allows him to drive her from New York to her home in Texas in his Chevy Nova. Thus develops a classic existential road-trip tale.

To love or not to love is the question.

Christy is not optimistic. “I knew we would never get married. I understood and had come to terms with the fact that our destiny was to break each other’s hearts, to destroy each other.”

Jimmy, for his part, is desperately committed. “I really love this girl and I see her as an opportunity, a window, you know? A chance to show up for something. Even if it’s a terribly humble goal, it’s one I might be able to achieve.”

The son of a manic-depressive who commits suicide, Jimmy has some big-time issues, as they say. Among other problems, he’s very angry. “What am I supposed to do with all this anger? What’s the right way for it to manifest? God knows I was getting sick and tired of tripping all over it.”

In one of the funniest chapters, Jimmy, who’s pushing 30, goes mano a mano against a snotty 12-year-old boy in a basketball game, and it’s a serious grudge match. Jimmy triumphs, makes the kid cry, and then apologizes and tries to hand out life lessons: “Success isn’t measured by what you achieve, it’s measured by the obstacles you overcome.”

Christy, whose politician father has been successful at everything except marriage, has a trunk full of fears: “Good morning, fear. You are my oldest friend.” And she isn’t quite sure about Jimmy. “Would he really be happy as a married man? It’s a boyish and silly quality, but his lust for adventure was one I admired. His eyes were full of a desire to prove himself.”

Their story is told from alternating his and her points of view. Both Jimmy and Christy are damaged but on the mend. “To know who you are and then to accept it — that is life’s journey,” a priest tells Jimmy, and this is also the book’s journey.

This is a fully felt novel with a lot of truth. Hawke has a good sense of place, but his strong suit is dialogue, internal and external. He has an impressive understanding of the agony and the irony of self-examination.

In the end the lovers appear to find the grace and resurrection they are seeking, and Hawke appears to have found a second career.


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