Against Flaky Protagonists in Fiction; or a Review of Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday

How can characters who are so multi-layered and so well-developed somehow be problematic?

The problem is that the two characters at the center of this book — the fledgling couple Jimmy and Christy — are flaky (or eccentric if you prefer a term with a positive connotation). The problem is that eccentric people are always interesting — but for arbitrary reasons. They are quitting jobs, doing drugs, getting married, quitting drugs, finding God, cleaning up their bad habits, starting up new bad habits, all for reasons that are hard to relate to. They are anti-heroes in their flakiness (Achilles, the Greek hero of the “Iliad,” is the classic example of flakiness — refusing to fight a war out of stubborn pride).

Both characters are likeable in their own ways, but this likeability is overwhelmed by their unlikeable flakiness. In so many ways these are people you know — people who seem very talented but can’t get out of their own way and inexplicability do dumb things. I’ve worked in education, so I meet these people all the time. It’s too frustrating and normal to be tragic. It’s mostly just frustrating.

Flaky characters present a particularly difficult problem for fiction. Fictional characters are often expected to go through some kind of meaningful change. But though eccentric characters change all the time, can their changes be described as meaningful?

It’s also the reason artists’ lives are rarely interesting, at least beyond short anecdotes. Hang out with someone like Andy Warhol for a night and it’s a story. Hang out with him for a year and it’s an ordeal.

Now that I have that (major) gripe out of the way, there is another secret to this book. Every reviewer is bound to underrate it because it’s written by Ethan Hawke. It’s easy to dismiss this book as the amateurish work of a vain actor, with a main character that mirrors many of his slacker roles (these reviews are in no short supply on Goodreads). But once you get beyond the Hawke name, the big secret of this book is that it is very finely crafted. The story is disciplined, every chapter works as a short story, polished and refined. The characters are well thought out. If anything, the story seems too deliberate and perhaps a tad overwritten. These faults, however, are the signs of an author who is trying to overcompensate for the missteps of a previous work (I haven’t read Hawke’s first book so this is just my guess.
What does this amount to then? A great book and a great second step in the maturity of a writer.

So where is the third book? Did Hawke give up after this one? Did he write a third book but never publish it? Or did he realize the overwhelming disadvantage of publishing under the Hawke name? Perhaps there is a third Hawke book out there hidden under pseudonym.

Is that all I have to say about this book? Well, not quite. I will be blasphemous. I will use Hawke and Hemingway in the same review. And why not? In some parts of this book, the characters disgusted me. This seems like a sin — and then I remembered that Hemingway could disgust me. “The Sun Also Rises” had absolutely disgusting characters doing disgusting things, and I still think of it as a classic “youth and its discontents” novel. Can a good novel make you feel dread? Yes! Ash Wednesday at one point evoked a terrible sense of dread — a sense that things couldn’t work out for the characters. This was the same feeling I had reading “To Have and Have Not,” a book I finished in two nights.

There is a manic energy that drives this book. “It’s amazing anyone lives to thirty” the young male protagonist says at one point. I used to feel exactly the same way. The characters, these two young characters who evoke dread and disgust, are people I know. They are EXACTLY like people I know. That makes the book necessary, horrible to read, and invigorating.

Is it possible to give a flawed book five stars? Sure it is. When you’re young and starting out as a novelist, you can only write imperfect novels. But this is a very, very good one.

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