So, another dabbler who thinks he’s a writer, I was thinking, with chops from acting--Dead Poets Society and so many other films. But the first few pages, and a peek here and there from the middle, and I’m hooked. I carry it next door to the café. If it’s no good it’ll be ok; I haven’t graced these pages with a negative review in a while.
William Harding, the fellow at the center of Ethan Hawke’s fourth novel, is crazy as a loon. A film actor about to play Hotspur in King Henry the Fourth, Parts One and Two on Broadway, with a celebrated director and cast, he inhabits swank quarters nearby with a wife who’s a pop singer and casts a shadow much longer than his own, their young children the only thing keeping them together. He says things—in first-person narration of his tale, or in dialogue with others—that clearly lack credibility . . . until something happens a step or two later that makes it all very credible indeed. At a party, he’s shoveling coke up his nose while talking to a young starlet, laying out two lines through each of several rounds, when he realizes he’s been snorting both lines himself each round. Then he does it again. He’s out of control in so many ways, to say it’s hard to like him is to understate things by half.
At the first preview, his “dresser” gets a soliloquy of sorts: While trying to get William out of his locked private restroom and into his elaborate costume, he lights into him with remarks that put everything in perspective:
“You’re sad because you are getting a divorce, but what you don’t know is that you were never married. Do you hear me? I don’t lie in bed at night and wonder if my husband loves me. I know he does! You seem to have this intellectual view that maybe all married people are like you, either living ‘unexplored’ lives or are secretly unhappy. But that’s not true. I love my husband and he loves me. . . . When I was on tour last year with Bye Bye Birdie, he took care of everything—laundry, school forms, bath time for our son . . . .”
Through it all, the novel’s leading man is “crying so hard there was no way I was going to stop.” And William doesn’t get pearls only from his dresser, who succeeds in getting him onstage. A few pages later he and the entire company get this from their world-famous director, “JC”—who’s working with a world-famous leading man as King Henry—at the tail end of a very long tongue-lashing of the whole company following the first preview after six weeks of rehearsals:
“None of that ‘acting’ shit, OK? Don’t do that to Virgil or to me; don’t do that to yourself. Remember: It’s not how far you throw your voice. It’s how far you throw your soul.”
William gets pearls like this from his mother, too. In the middle of a long scene in which she tells him the marriage he’s just lost wasn’t all that worth keeping, this committed humanitarian who spends most her time in Haiti running an operation that makes a difference in the lives of so many poor people, tells him:
“If you weren’t so handsome, you’d have less than half the friends you have now. It’s true, you’re not that interesting.”
He is, indeed, a very uninteresting bloke, which can be a challenging thing in a protagonist.
Halfway through the novel, the actor playing the King walks with William backstage to await their turn at the opening night curtain call. “Fame is a black death,” he whispers to William.
“We like to watch people die. So we put them on magazines and fan the flames of their egos until they actually catch fire and explode. The zeitgeist is trying to do it to you right now.”
Then, standing there in the wings, the King delivers what may be his best line of the night:
“I mean this in the kindest way possible . . . I believe in you. I think you are doing an excellent job with a very difficult role and that if you were to quit smoking and apply yourself fully to the art of acting, you could have a great life in the theater and make serious art. But there are traps all around you; it doesn’t take a psychic to see them. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see that, most likely, you will die of the Black Death. . . . Do not underestimate the disease. I’ve watched it eat better than you.”
They make their way to their places behind the curtains, and the King leans closer to our unlikely hero.
“‘I have only one real applicable piece of advice for you,’ he said, his perfect diction piercing through the noise of the crowd. ‘Have a boring life and make your art thrilling.’”
We will leave it there, except to say the closing pages of the novel give us a William who is as credible and strong as the opening pages’ version was irritating.
I will note that in several places the book could have used a better copy editor—double-words, dropped articles and other oddities abound. But this actor can write, and I’ll be keeping an eye out in the used bookstores for one of his first three.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .