October 06, 2004

Hawkes Harbor, by S.E. Hinton

This book, Hinton's first for adult readers, has some serious flaws--but I have to admit that it's an interesting ride and kept me turning pages. It's a novel of rebellion and redemption; it's also the most peculiar vampire tale I've yet seen.

Although I usually avoid spoilers in my reviews, I find that I can't write about this book without going into significant detail. If you have fond memories of The Outsiders and you're inclined to pick up a copy of Hawkes Harbor on the strength of them, you should probably just go do so and skip the rest of this review. That was my motivation for reading the book, and on the whole I'm glad I took the time.

The rest of you can continue reading.

The first thing I have to say is that you should skip the prologue, as it's by far the weakest part of the book. In the prologue we meet our hero, eight-year-old Jamie Sommers. He's a bastard, and a tough kid, and his mother has just died; kindly Fr. Nolan, who promised Jamie's mother to look after him, is handing him over to a Cruel Nun (TM) to be raised in a Catholic orphanage. It's not clear what else Fr. Nolan could do, but young Jamie feels betrayed by both Nolan and his dead mother.

As an outline, that's not so bad--except for the stereotypical Cruel Nun (TM)--but the reason it doesn't work is that throughout the prologue Jamie carries on an internal monologue that just doesn't sound like the thoughts of an eight-year-old. It's too analytical, too crisp, too grown-up. It might be a reasonable description of Jamie's state of mind from an adult point of view, but my willing suspension of disbelief went into free fall.

I tell you this so that you won't be disappointed by the opening pages; the remainder of the book is blessedly free of this kind of narrative clumsiness.

Fast forward 17 years. Jamie Sommers has been checked into an upscale mental hospital by his employer, Grenville Hawkes. He is nearly catatonic; he is also recovering from being shot three times in the back. During the course of his treatment we learn quite a bit about his life to date, mostly in the form of flashbacks. He has spent most of his life at sea, sometimes working honestly as a merchant seaman, and sometimes participating in a variety of criminal activities ranging from petty cons to gun-running, mostly with an older scoundrel named Kellen Quinn. After blowing the proceeds of one such voyage on a massive binge of drugs, booze, and women in New Orleans, he follows Quinn to Hawkes Harbor, Delaware, where his life changes forever, and where he enters the employment of Grenville Hawkes.

I won't go into how he gets into the mental hospital, except to say that it makes sense; eventually, and probably before he really should have, Grenville Hawkes comes and takes him back to Hawkes Harbor. And the rest of the book is about the odd master/servant relationship that obtains between the two men, and how through it (among other things) both come to find health, happiness and even redemption.

Much of this process of redemption is both persuasive and touching; however, there are one or two bits that I thought were completely preposterous. There's a point after Jamie's return to Hawkes Harbor where he nearly over-doses on anti-depressants and pain-killers. It's accidental; he's still taking the meds he was prescribed in the hospital, and the local doctor had prescribed additional meds for him in ignorance of this. The result has been that so far from laying his personal demons, the cocktail of drugs he's been taking have been making him worse. Hawkes resolves to wean Jamie off of the medications altogether, and takes him on a sea cruise with only a limited supply. The regimen works wonders, and most of its success is due to the pair of beautiful young women Jamie spends most of the cruise in bed with.

That's right--somehow, despite being in lousy physical shape, and being strung out from withdrawal, and having a tendency to jump at shadows, Jamie manages not only to attract the attention of two smart, beautiful women, not only do they take him to bed, taking turns with him, but he manages to keep them well-satisfied, apparently many times a day, for the rest of the cruise. And at the end of that time he's renewed, rejuvenated, more self-assertive than he's been in years, and stronger in every way. This whole scenario is as unlikely as it is contrived, and I'm afraid I shall continue being skeptical of suchlike sexual healing.

Having dealt with that issue in more detail than it really deserves, I might as well end by saying that I found the ending satisfying, if a bit treacly, and perhaps more than a little theologically dubious.

Bottom-line...it was worth my time, even if I didn't always believe it.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 6, 2004 04:34 PM