Ethan Hawke is sincere in the belief that love is all you need. This was the message of the actor’s inept first novel, 1996’s ”The Hottest State.” Undaunted by the withering reviews he earned, Hawke again tries to spread the word with Ash Wednesday, a road novel that is artless in a way that comes only to the extremely earnest.
The setting is contemporary America, the hero Jimmy Heartsock — 29-year-old college dropout, resident of upstate New York, soldier in the ”lamebrain” Army, self-described ”lame-ass dirtweed,” and prideful owner of a ”kick-ass” ’69 Chevy Nova. ”The only thing interesting or worthy of remark about me was my car,” Jimmy says. I will not dispute that claim.
We meet Jimmy the day after he broke up with his girlfriend. (Why did he dump her? Simply ”out of fear and emotional necessity.”) He is high on crystal meth and says that doing drugs is ”the most invigorating thing” in his life. Despite this and other mentions of Jimmy’s history of substance abuse — signifiers of beatnik-style grittiness — he is clean for the rest of the novel and doesn’t exhibit the merest twitch of a withdrawal symptom.
Rather, Jimmy craves his ex. A passage illuminates both the nature of the attraction and the smoldering wreckage of Hawke’s prose: ”She had class, man. No s—, not one person in a hundred has intrinsic class — not affectation or money, not some lamebrain in a million-dollar gown drinking a highball or a private school chippie sashaying around like her daddy owned the joint, but natural poise, grace, dignity. She had that. You could take her and rub her around in the mud and kick her in the head and she’d still have it.”
This radiant vision is Christy Ann Walker, her name fragrant with allegorical import. Christy has just learned she’s pregnant and, eight days after the breakup, is making her way home to Texas on a Trailways bus. Her seatmate is blind and black and therefore eager to impart spiritual wisdom. ”Grace is living with an awake heart,” he says. ”Freedom is grace.” Grace, furthermore, is the name of Christy’s cat.
Jimmy, going AWOL, intercepts Christy at a bus station in the Catskills. He proposes. They argue. She sort of accepts. They celebrate their bond within the Nova, Jimmy finding the physical act of love an ”ancient healing elixir…. I knew I had reached the moment my life had been waiting for. I was going to be a father and a husband.
”I spanked her bottom and cranked up the tunes.”
They roll down to New York City and, over lunch, become puppets enacting a dialogue about the mutability of identity. Christy: ”Sometimes I wonder if our personality — or what we think of as ourselves — isn’t just more like a radar device on a plane.” No character in ”Ash Wednesday” can ask another to pass the salt without the conversation turning into an inarticulate dilation on the meaning of life. The lovers’ programmatically unhappy childhoods provide much fodder for these discussions.
The pair of beautiful losers heads to Ohio, Jimmy’s home state, where they’re wed, but not before Jimmy delivers a long speech about learning ”acceptance” from the example of John Starks, late of the New York Knicks. I am obliged to point out that Starks, with his execrable shot selection and his penchant for head-butting opponents, is a punk.
For a honeymoon, the Heartsocks motor to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. There is more hazy contemplation of the eternal mysteries, further fetishization of sports cars and blacks, some unbelievably appalling prenatal care. Fat Tuesday leads to Ash Wednesday and to Houston, where redemption, or something, is achieved. In conclusion, Jimmy — ”a fresh gust of wind” at his back — declares, ”I felt new, like one or maybe all of us had been resurrected,” prompting readers acquainted with the New Testament to ask: Should the title be ”Easter Sunday”?
By any name, the novel is such an embarrassment that it works only as a joyride administering little thrills of schadenfreude to celebrity watchers. Ethan Hawke has been generously indulged by the house of Alfred A. Knopf, conventionally regarded as America’s preeminent publisher, here engaged in a project better suited to a vanity press.