Knopf, 2002 (ISBN 037541326X)
One of the first things students are taught in their early English courses is that a chief part of any fictional story involves the conflict. This, the teachers point out, can be man versus man, man versus nature, man versus the elements, etc. In a dime-store science-fiction novel, the conflict might be man versus the indestructible robot from the future or man versus the evil alien ruler. What actor/author Ethan Hawke attempts and so artfully achieves in his second novel, Ash Wednesday, is the most difficult of all: man versus himself, or rather, man versus his own emotions. He doubles down on the challenge by having the battle fought not just within one character/narrator, but two, trading off their stories which in turn play off of each other to form what can loosely be called the novel's plot.
Ash Wednesday tells the story of a young soldier, Jimmy, and his girlfriend, Christy. The couple, when the novel begins, has just broken up (because of Jimmy's error, he quickly realizes). Jimmy tracks Christy down at a bus station, where he finds her headed for Houston, her hometown. He admits to making a mistake, begs for forgiveness, and asks Christy to marry him. He finds out Christy is pregnant, and he ends up agreeing to drive her to Texas in a beat-up Chevy Nova even though it leaves him AWOL from the army. Much of the tale involves various stops along the way: to see family, to get married, to get medical help.
While the story here has intense moments of interesting activity, for the most part the novel is driven both by the dialogue between the characters and the internal monologues of both as they discuss their histories, their attitudes, their doubts about themselves and their relationships, hinting and revealing, depicting and exploring all the human things that go on so often in the mind. Hawke captures this brilliantly, never stumbling in either the words he chooses or the psychology and sociology he explores. His characters can be understood as the complex individuals they are. The reader discovers (in the author's own time) how Jimmy and Christy were raised, what their parents were like, what their earliest influences were, and how they developed their motivations and peculiarities of self. All this occurs within a relatively short 221 pages, yet is completely believable. What Hawke does in bringing these mental portraits to life would be refreshing in any novel, but is especially welcome here where the slightest miscalculation might drive the minimalist plot into pointlessness. Suffice it to say, Hawke gets it right: the psychology, the characters, the story.
Hawke's first novel, The Hottest State, told a similar tale of human longing, although with the Gen-X angst and humbling awkwardness so much a part of his early-90s films. In Ash Wednesday, however, he makes his case for being ranked among the great American authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, known for their intimate portraits of the human psyche in times of personal struggle. Hawke may not be a member of that exclusive club just yet, but he has a guest pass and is already ordering drinks at the bar. Recommendation: Buy it. For anyone considering getting married, having a baby, deserting the army, taking a long car trip across the country, or visiting relatives you generally cannot stand, buy it today.
In fact, get up out of your well-worn computer chair and buy it now. Lessons can be learned. Aside from that, Ash Wednesday proves thoroughly enjoyable to read. After the first couple of chapters, in fact, it seems hard to put down. Consider it well worth the price of the double-live bootleg Pearl Jam CD you were thinking about instead.