Peter S. Prescott's review of 'The Hawkline Monster'
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Monster in the Cellar | The Hawkline Monster

by Peter S. Prescott

Imagine Zane Grey trying to spruce up Book I of The Faerie Queen to make it accessible to readers west of Wichita and you'll have some idea of this fable's disarming appeal. All the ingredients of A Good Old Myth are present: (1) a remote Gothic house that maintains its own freezing temperature in the summer heat of the Dead Hills of eastern Oregon; (2) a monster said to thrash about in the ice caves beneath the Gothic house; (3a) an unmarried woman threatened by the monster; (3b) her sister, an identical twin; (4) their father, an alchemist consumed by his search for (5) the proper mix of chemicals that will solve the ultimate problem of mankind; (6) two professional killers.

Now for the recipe of the plot. Set aside (4) while (1) freezes in its simmering container. Separate (3a) and (3b), removing (3b) to (6). Bring (3b) and (6) to (1), then blend (3a) and (3b). Let (5) boil over until (2) is overdone. Apply (6) to (2). Allow (3a) and (3b) and (6) to scramble; spice with dirty words. (The sex is inevitable once you have unmarried women troubled by a monster thrashing in their cellar.) And there you have it. The result, I assure you, is as cute as a bucket of oyster stew: you can suck it right down before you remember to put it in your mouth.

Like Kurt Vonnegut?, Richard Brautigan is beloved by college kids. Each is admired for his tenderness toward human vulnerability, for his pose of the faux naïf, for his air of sweet inexpressible sadness. The difference between them is that Brautigan is a singularly careful writer; unlike Vonnegut, he has not yet succumbed to portentous postures, gravid with sentimentality. Brautigan is a miniaturist who broods about death, who builds his novels from small self-contained blocks. He cannot entirely avoid coyness or dead-end digressions. Yet he conveys a sense of spare economy, of humorous or graceful lines eased in almost imperceptibly: "Finally they came across something human. It was a grave"; "The accident barely killed her and she was quite beautiful in death."

The Hawkline Monster is rather more of a pastiche, more of a parody than any of Brautigan's other fictions. It lacks the complexity, the many evanescent refractions of his best book, Trout Fishing in America, which taps a central metaphor of American literature and deserves to survive the time in which it was written. Never mind. There are enough oppositions here (heat/cold; light/shadow; sex/death) to keep freshman instructors fueled for a decade. And I like the subtitle. Little old ladies waiting in libraries for Cashelmara? to be returned to the shelves may pick it up, unwittingly. And then won't they be surprised.

September 9, 1974: 82-83

Reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 5. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1976 (pp 67-72) and Prescott, Peter S. Encounters with American Culture: 1973-1985. Transaction Publishers, 2006 (pp 18-20).

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