Hawthorn & Child
by Daniel Rivas
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway begins with a crime. Cars rushing off into the night. A boy shot. Two cars. And Mishazzo, has he run? Mishazzo? Who? It doesn’t matter, and you never find out. He’s something to do with crime. The book goes on in this fashion for a short 282 pages, never stopping to explain to the reader who any of these people are. We gather it together for ourselves, as we try to make sense of the story Ridgway is telling here.
The principle characters are the titular ones: Hawthorn and Child, both Metropolitan Police detectives. Partners. They are drawn sparsely, scarcely drawn, each given a few external characteristics by which we recognise them as they float in and out of the periphery of stories about other people. Child is black and wears glasses. Hawthorn is gay and often breaks down in tears. He doesn’t know why; he makes excuses for it. “He wept in his bed, out of tiredness, he thought. Merely tiredness. That was fine.”
They aren’t the focus of the novel, though. They are our entry point into the world they inhabit, in which the gruesome and tragic intersect with the light-hearted or romantic. And the worst things are just unexplained—there’s no reason for them, or if there is it’s too well hidden for our heroes to find. It’s confusing, often baffling, trying to stuff life into a novel without tweaks; without setting up parallels and symmetries where another book would. There’s just things, and the lives of the people to whom these things happen. The reader expects that nothing can be taken at face value—but in reality, most things can. The characters know that, although they sometimes have trouble accepting it. Especially Hawthorn.
—Café Out, [Child] said.
—Is that a gay thing?
—So he’s gay?
—They do nice cakes. I wouldn’t assume.
Hawthorn doesn’t want to assume, but he may as well. Everyone else does. When a man calls the police after being sent emails claiming he’s a pedophile, they assume he probably is.
—You are never more than nine feet away, said Child.
—From a registered sex offender, they said, together.
There’s some acceptance of the truth of things there. Still, he keeps looking. When his brother tells him a grisly story about a Jewish man’s drowning, Hawthorn demands to know the punchline. This has to be a joke, a racist one. The brother looks at him, horrified. “Hawthorn thought the punchline was coming then. [...] Something about floating Jews, drowning Jews, Jews and shit, something like that. John said nothing.”
The author has a good eye for picking out details from all this. When the boy shot at the beginning is being stripped in preparation for a desperate attempt to save his life, “His genitals looked out of place, as if they were the last thing you’d expect to find on a naked body. [...] All the attention was focused on his stomach, his abdomen, around there somewhere. Hawthorn tried not to look.” Grisly details are almost always well-played; in the only other Ridgway I’ve read (Standard Time, which I’ll probably return to but for now sits unfinished in Brighton), any horror seemed overdone. Not so here. Moments of violence work to draw you in, even when the degree of gore starts to feel unlikely. It’s a novel about policemen. Police see horrible things.
He really hits his stride in other places, though. In the section “Rothko Eggs,” the depiction of the police chief’s teenage daughter is perfect in almost every detail. And in “Marching Songs,” an unstable man—who gets nervous buying things from shops and is convinced he has been poisoned—receives all the best lines.
The Zapruder film. Hillsborough. Bloody Sunday. The shooting of Oswald. The audio of Bobby Kennedy’s murder. The calls from the towers. The planes going in. The jumpers. The suicide of Pennsylvania State Treasurer Budd Dwyer on live television. He stuck a gun in his mouth and blew the back of his head off. The camera zooms in on his dead face, the blood pouring out of him like the water out of my overfilled kettle. I don’t know what to do about it.
Ridgway seems often to feel obliged to poke fun at his own writing, unnecessarily. In The Spectacular, a cut-off from or adjunct or whatever to the main novel (99p at all good Amazon download shops), a literary agent tells his client to get a job:
—Don’t panic, he said. Teach? Creative writing.
—I couldn’t do that.
—Yes you could. It’s such a lot of bollocks. Fewer commas, more full stops is what it amounts to Clive. God help us. As if we didn’t have enough shit awful writers. You could join the industry that creates shit awful writers of shorter sentences.
And again, a little more obliquely, this time from the actual book:
—Oh, Hawthorn. You are a terrible fucking detective.[...] You keep the worst notes ever. And because you write things down you think you’ve understood them. And you haven’t.
That seems a pointed comment, at the author and at his characters. Hawthorn & Child is a collection of stories about people who are almost certain that something’s up, but can’t understand it. Who are caught in a world that, while novelistic, feels no compulsion to provide them with anything like a neat story. Someone isn’t telling them something. That’s the reason Hawthorn cries: because he’s lost and he still expects something beautiful to reveal itself. Threads trail off, false leads turn up, and in amongst all these people, who otherwise have no real connection, is an absence—a space where their shared ulteriors may have been or might still be. A hole in the narrative which is crime-shaped, but by the end we feel could have been made by anything.
Variations on this theme, of life’s not fitting a story, are a cliche. Often said, seldom thought about, but Ridgway has done his thinking. This is a serious attempt to present life as horror. Nothing works as it ought but everything functions. When the madman of Marching Songs tells us that, despite appearances, “Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken,” it’s the simplest moment in the whole book—because he’s definitely, absolutely, 100% wrong about that.