Driven to crime

December 1, 1995

Lecturer Jim Hawes is on the road to fame and fortune with his first novel, A White Merc with Fins. Huw Richards reports. Hawes the novelist

Brady wanted a real gun, he insisted on a real gun, the big meathead bounced up and banged on the table with his big meatball fists and roared he was out if he didn't get a real ****ing gun. So I hopped up too, I knocked my chair back-wards accidentally on purpose and stuck all my knuckles on the table like a baboon and put my face within loafing distance of his and yelled back:

"Shut up and listen to the Plan!"

"You can't rob a bank with a plastic ****ing cap-gun!"

"What the **** do you know about robbing ****ing banks?"

"Well I ****ing know you don't rob ****ing banks with plastic ****ing cap-guns! Great ****ing plan!"

This was serious. I had let myself get into the F-word thing with Brady, and now it was my round again, and we were already close to saturation.

"Is nice big heavy plastic, "says Chicho. "Look!"

"I don't give a **** how ****ing big it is (Brady was tempted, his eyes wobbled, but he knocked the gun away, he looked like a lobster on speed by now) and I don't give a **** about the ****ing plan, I am not ****ing robbing Michael ****ing Winner's private ****ing bank with a plastic ****ing cap-gun."

From A White Merc With Fins by James Hawes to be published in January by Jonathan Cape, Pounds 12.99

Hawes the Academic

Now, in its insistence on the creative primacy of the "consumer" of literature, this strategy curiously echoes the free-market rhetoric with which it is contemporary. Even more striking is that the deconstructive relationship between reader and text might itself be described, in the colourful language of Lacanian criticism, as a penetrative, patricidal melodrama. Deconstruction appears to conceive of the chosen text as a pure object, without any qualities proper to itself, which, once delivered from the dubious paternalism of traditional Authority, is helplessly open to any interpretive act which the boldly subjective new Reader feels inclined to "introduce" into it. Such a procedure sounds more like a Victorian elopement than a liberation: the rule of the (canonical) Author is dead - long live the freeplay of the (critical) Writer!

From A reply to Elizabeth Boa's, Resistant Reading, James Hawes, in Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte.

As Dr Johnson might have put it :"When a man knows he is to be famous in a few weeks, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Not famous in the way that, say, Quentin Tarantino or Martin Amis is famous. But Jim Hawes is certainly about to become very famous by the standards of lecturers in German at the University of Wales, Swansea.

We can be reasonably sure about this because, whatever the eventual sales of his first novel, A White Merc With Fins, due for publication next month, publicity machines will be grinding overtime as publisher Jonathan Cape aims to recoup its investment in it (see extract above).

Dr Hawes's agent summed it up during the five-publisher bidding war earlier this year:"I have news for which you may require the assistance of a small chair." That small chair found a permanent location by the phone in Hawes's Cardiff home over the next few months as the bidding rose to mid-Pounds 30,000, extremely high for a first novel - and comparable sums were extracted from publishers in the United States, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and elsewhere. The total is now comfortably into six figures.

His name and association with Swansea - Kingsley Amis's first academic home - lend themselves to "Lucky Jim" headlines, and the joke going the rounds is that his immediate boss, Rhys Williams, has offered to match his next advance for the second novel not to be based on the German department. Numerous writers - crime novelists Robert Parker and Mike Phillips come to mind - have launched writing careers from an academic base they discarded as soon as their books were lucrative enough. Hawes is not planning to join them: "It took me a long time to get an academic career, so I won't give it up lightly. I enjoy it - 80 per cent of teaching is very rewarding and while I'm no fonder of administration and marking than any other academic, reading Schiller, Kafka and Goethe is something I would do in my own time whatever my job. There's a lot to be said for being paid to do it." Enthusiasm goes with strong views on literature:"I see myself as a historian. Literature should serve history and be seen in its context. I hate deconstructionism."

A White Merc With Fins, the story of an anomic arts graduate and a picaresque mix of friends and associates who set out to rob a bank, is not in any sense a campus novel. What it does reflect are some reasons why Hawes prizes an academic career. He began in 1987 at the age of when Martin Swales of University College, London warned him "You do realise that there are no jobs, don't you" and took him on as a PhD student studying "Echoes of Nietzsche in pre-First World War literature.

He says that his drifting, dreaming, nameless protagonist "contains a fair amount of me at the age of 28, or at least of what I might have become if I hadn't got lucky".

His six years after leaving Oxford with a "totally unexpected" first had a chequered quality. A theatre course in Cardiff led to fulsome reviews in The Guardian of a play and of his performance as Hotspur in Henry IV Part One. "I thought I was going to be Kenneth Branagh, but it didn't happen."

There was temping in London, archaeology and teaching English as a foreign language - leading to a spell as a busker in Zaragoza. "Two of us had just arrived in Seville and were in a bar when we were approached by a cross-dressing prostitute who asked: 'Are you German?' We said we weren't, but that we spoke German. He warned us to get out of the bar as people there were planning to rob us. As we left he followed us out and asked about our jobs there. We explained we were going to work for a language school and he said: 'I know the boss. She is the biggest heroin dealer in Seville.' At this we got straight back on the train to Madrid and a few days later I was playing the French horn in the streets of Zaragoza. We had to do something to get money and the alternatives were not appealing."

German-speaking cross-dressing Spanish prostitutes are the stuff of surreal comedy, and the book draws strongly on this chequered period, particularly in its portrayal of London subcultures. But there is a serious point behind the humour. "Whatever happened to the settlement of 1945 and the aspirant middle-class dream of a good job and security following on from higher education? Why were all the things that seemed so solid in the 1970s so easy to sweep away and why was the Thatcherite attack on the liberal arts so successful? And what is going to happen to my students when they leave university?"

Any defence of liberal values is neither uncritical nor without mischief. The book's anecdote about presenting a dedicated liberal with a bottle of South African wine on the day of Mandela's election, rebutting his outrage by pointing out that it was now ideologically sound and then, post-consumption, adding that the wine had undoubtedly been grown and bottled when Mandela was still behind bars, is personal experience. His narrator's stream of consciousness includes a succession of sideswipes at liberal totems: "If you are going to save your life, the first thing to do is cancel your subscription to The Guardian."

The style may remind some of Tibor Fischer while the characters have something of Damon Runyon, but this is coincidence."I can see the similarities," says Hawes, "but I hadn't read The Thought Gang or any Runyon stories when I wrote the book."

The writers he studies inspire a sense of proportion rather than imitation: "When you read somebody like Kafka you know you aren't in the same league. And I can think of numerous contemporaries of his who were extremely famous at the time and are now completely forgotten."

Hawes's next three projects - the screenplay for A White Merc, the just-completed second novel and a book on Kafka's The Castle and The Trial for Grant and Cutler's Critical Guides - demonstrate the juggling act he will have to manage from now on (plus the little matter of becoming a father for the first time next month).

He hopes variety will stimulate rather than cramp. "As a writer I have to suspend the restraints and the constant internal critical urge of the academic. It is a great relaxation to get away from footnotes. But equally I enjoy going back to Kafka and having facts to build around."

Ability to continue doing both, Hawes recognises, depends on the goodwill of his colleagues and head of department. Professor Williams says: "We took Jim on because he is lively and colourful and his research overlaps with other people in the department - the last thing I want is 18 specialists who can't talk to each other. He's a good academic, colourful rather than safe, with an independent, polemical mind. And he's done a good job for the next Research Assessment Exercise, but he knows he's got to carry on producing."

Fame and fortune bring their costs. He is not looking forward to bad reviews." I've given a few hostages to fortune and I know that hostile reviews will be very painful. But being a failed actor is probably a pretty good preparation and I can't imagine any criticism being much worse than my PhD viva, when I was referred.".

Wrestling with film offers - the winner this time being Allegra Huston's company - was stressful and time-consuming. "I'm so used to being a supplicant and applying for things that the temptation is to say yes to the first offer," he says. "There's a constant fear that if I don't it will all evaporate." A hard-ball agent helped a lot, though Hawes was never tempted by one company that suggested Hugh Grant - as unlike his narrator as it is possible to be while a member of the same species - for the lead role.

Quite how people will react to fame, however brief or limited, is hard to predict. Having known Hawes since we were at school together 20 years ago, I suspect he will be quite good at it. While enjoying attention - he was not an actor for nothing - the sense of irony evident in someone who annotates the purpler passages of his serious academic articles with comments like "Good, eh ?" or simply "?" should keep him clear of the obvious trap of believing his own publicity.

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