Somewhere between astronauts walking on the moon and poodles walking on their hind legs lies the accomplishment of actors writing books. There is a tradition for such activity: Stephen Collins, Joan Collins, William Shatner, and Ally Sheedy have all taken pen in hand (as they would probably put it) to write mediocre-to-wretched fiction; Simon Callow, Kirk Douglas, and Peter Ustinov have all produced good-to-passable nonfiction. As a rule, actors who write are no more adept at the craft than writers who act. (Do we really want to see any further on-screen appearances by Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, or Stephen King?) But why should anyone be surprised that this is the case? Acting and writing are such diametrically opposed skills — one puts words in another person’s mouth, the other swallows another person’s words as one’s own — that it’s a wonder these restless, heat-seeking polymaths put themselves in criticism’s way.
Ethan Hawke, an affably intense 25-year-old actor — he was the boy for Winona Ryder in Reality Bites and the guy for Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise — opens himself to rough literary scrutiny in The Hottest State. But surely there must have been gentler, less daredevil ways for him to try his hand at the writing game. The novel — a short story, really, or two scenes in a Singles-like movie — is about a young actor called William who falls hard in love with a young woman called Sarah. Sarah is a would-be singer from Seattle, a poetic thing who tells William, ”I’m tough when I sing, and my teeth get all crazy crooked like yours.” She also tells him, ”I’m kind of fragile, I think.” But does William listen? He does not. Sarah is mercurial, flaky, coy, neurotic, manipulative — stringing her boyfriend along about sex, predicting a dire end to their relationship from the moment they meet, and, at one point, giddyapping around in the rain so that ”water was dripping off her curls, weighing down her hair, making her face all eyes.” William is crazy about her. He wants to go to France with her. He wants to marry her. She dumps him. He howls with rage and smashes telephones.
The author is at his most confident when he’s in William’s head, and least comfortable when he’s trying to convey what’s going on beneath Sarah’s heavy curls and behind her all-eyes face. But that still begs the question of what the actor is doing here, practicing his coltish writing skills on a major publisher’s racetrack. If Hawke is serious about the lit biz, he’d do well to work awhile in less exposed venues, perhaps focusing on shorter stories and submitting them to little magazines. And if big publishing houses are serious about the lit biz, they’d do well to resist the urge to trot out celebrity novelists like circus acts. D+