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BOOK REVIEW : Disjointed Equine Tale Trots Off the Track : SWEET WILLIAM, A Memory of Old Horse by John Hawkes . Simon & Schuster: $20, 248 pages

August 19, 1993|BEVERLY BEYETTE and RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

What Robert Coover did for "Pinocchio" several years ago, John Hawkes now does for "Black Beauty." Clever and crushingly ornate, Coover used "Pinocchio in Venice" to turn Collodi's wooden puppet into a postmodern creature of relays, solenoids, pulsing green lights and gibbering anguish.

Hawkes, seemingly quieter--and, in his sudden attacks of depraved comedy, more alarming--turns Anna Sewell's abused and sweetly philosophical horse into an abused, philosophical and periodically ravening creature of the Apocalypse.

Some of us, Hawkes' equine protagonist declares at the start, are born poor, yet our "small stars rise and rise with never a falter." Others never rise. Still others start splendidly and go on that way. And finally, "a sad few of us are born into this same soft, nurturing world, yet enjoy but briefly the rise of our stars, for soon, and no matter the harmony from which we have come, our swiftly rising stars abruptly fall, plummet, plunge for however long it takes us to become helplessly mired in lost hopes."

Such is the flowery-worded case of Sweet William, a.k.a. Old Horse, a.k.a. Petrarch. He tells us of the horsy paradise he was born in: a lush, green farm, a kindly horse breeder with kindly wife and three kindly daughters, a tall, beautiful and placid dam. That placid is a signal; pretty soon everything breaks apart: idyllic life, moral tone and high-Victorian language.

William's mother falls ill with colic. She gets a theoretically lethal injection and is sweetly buried under the roses. A rainstorm comes, and a ghastly muddy figure struggles out of the ground before collapsing, authentically dead this time. William sees it all; he is then taken by a jeering stable girl to watch his brute of a sire impregnate a mare.

Hawkes makes the black stallion a maelstrom of lust and squalling incompetence. Three stable-hands have to lift, brace and aim him at his target.

William, no longer sweet, enters into the true fracture of his being. He is caught not merely between two characters, but between two texts: late 19th-Century sentimental uplift and late 20th-Century explosive hyper-realism. The book judders continually between the two currents, with periodic short-circuits that threaten to turn the machinery off.

Also the reader, who is apt to think: too much, or too disjointed, or why has Hawkes tied me up between two Williams and whipped them off in opposite directions?

For fun, partly. There is a measure of allure in Sweet William, and even if the author is exasperatingly extravagant, he is light-spirited as well.

William goes into a Black Beauty-like fall; except that the blows come from within as well as without. Despite overpowering urges to attack his keepers--he calms himself with a satisfying tryst with a little mare--he gets himself trained and to the racetrack. He is a star and wins seven successive races until his bisected nature bisects.

Right on the track he mounts a complaisant running mate--Hawks manages to make horse sex genuinely seductive--and later he all but tears a trainer to pieces. He is gelded, then sold to a man who kills his horses and collects insurance. William kills him instead, and escapes to a city riding stable.

Discarding the narrative at this point, as if it were a hat he'd gotten tired of, Hawkes jumps ahead. We meet William, now called Old Horse, at 22; swaybacked, lame and abused at a grungy rural stable. Master, an ancient Irish gentleman, equally decrepit, recognizes him as a thoroughbred, buys him and renames him Petrarch.

Master and his rough and decent

sidekick, Ralph--they are like Don Quixote and Sancho--take Petrarch to Ralph's stable. Disputing continually, Ralph teaches the old man, who is ignorant of horses but loves them to the point of wanting to be one, to groom and ride.

The story has changed shape. Now it centers on Master's gentle doddering and childhood memories, intercut with Ralph's earthy and sometimes very funny stories. William recedes. He becomes a bitter and meditative bystander, platonically in love with a stablemate mare, and waiting with irritable resignation to die. Hawkes has switched him once more; no longer a Victorian moralizer or violent, contemporary Superhorse, he is simply a dumb beast.

There is something lovely about this, though it does come amid considerable narrative chaos. Appealing as they are, I am not sure just what Master and Ralph are supposed to represent as they take over the story. It seems disjointed.

We have been intensely, if confusedly, involved with William and now we are switched to the two Irishmen, whose liveliness and disputatious charm are nevertheless tenuous and distant. Perhaps that is the point. After his various protagonisms, William is relieved of his anthropomorphic role and becomes only a horse; with a domestic animal's shadowy apprehension of his human masters.

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