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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley concludes with an authorial conversation between Hannah Tinti and another novelist, Karen Russell. In that discussion, Tinti uses the phrase “fractured angles” to describe the way she looks at her flawed hero, Samuel Hawley.  I think the phrase applies equally to her entire novel, for the book essentially is a series of fractured angles that moves an odd assortment of windmill-tilting characters through a picaresque landscape of mishaps and mayhem.

Hawley, a two-bit criminal with a checkered past and a penchant for making bad decisions, takes one positive turn.  He marries Lily and fathers a precocious daughter, Loo.  The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley opens with father and daughter, an itinerant pair, finally settling down in the New England town where Lily (who died some years earlier) grew up.  There Hawley ekes out a living on the shore, while Loo attends classes where her mother went to school.  Every other chapter of this novel describes the present, as Loo matures and as she grows increasingly inquisitive about her parents’ pasts.

Chapters recounting Hawley’s history, his endless scrapes with the law and with other petty thieves, alternate with Loo’s more innocent coming-of-age escapades.  Hawley’s body tells the tale.  Twelve healed bullet holes, twelve troubled tales. There is a story to go with each scar, each gunshot wound, each capricious mistake he has made, each foolish adventure.  Some of his actions are violent; some, quite stupid.  But despite his defects, Hawley is likable, with a distinct code of honor and with an unflinching attachment to Loo.

Here’s where Tinti’s fractured angles come into play.  Loo’s high school experiences, her mother’s raucous youth, and her father’s multiple crimes all refract off one another.  The parallels are subtle, for Tinti is much too smart to write in any heavy-handed way.  Instead, she flashes mirrors of momentary likenesses, then bounces her images and actions apart.  Since I don’t want to give the plots away, I’ll just allude to a couple of examples.  Hawley teaches Lily and then Loo to handle guns, with similar results.  Ditto, showing each how to hot-wire a car, an important survival skill in Hawley-land. The characters’ swimming capabilities thread through the novel, too, in ways that resonate between the present and the past.  Ditto, their interactions with Lily’s mother, Loo’s grandmother who lives taciturnly nearby.

I’m not sure that every reader will find the Hawley escapades as roguish as I did.  Some of the episodes are senselessly violent, while others are quite quixotic.  However, the theme that ties these fractured angles together is a serious one.  As Loo discovers near the close of the novel, “It was like looking in a mirror. The same flickering hope . . . Their hearts were all cycling through the same madness—the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair—like planets taking turns to orbit around the sun.  Each containing their own unique gravity. Their own force of attraction.  Drawing near and holding fast to whatever entered their own atmosphere.”  Every single character in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is him or herself a fractured angle.  Broken perhaps, or bent, but still brightly shining at the end of the book.    – Ann Ronald

Also available by Hannah Tinti: Animal Crackers; The Good Thief

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