The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
By Hannah Tinti; The Dial Press; 2017; 376 pages; $27
Hannah Tinti's second novel — her first was the award-winning "The Good Thief" — asks readers to consider what, in our lives, constitutes a hero and whether a man might be both tragically flawed and lovingly good. These are apt times to think about the complexities of every person and the gray that stretches between black-and-white extremes when it comes to our beliefs and behaviors.
Samuel Hawley is a career criminal. He's also a dedicated, caring father. Tinti herself has compared him to Hercules, who — in the legend — murdered his wife and children before setting out on the quest in which he battled monsters and won the approval of the gods. Hercules accomplished 12 "labours" that exhibited great strength. In Tinti's novel, Samuel Hawley bears the scars of 12 bullet holes from his various adventures.
The novel's structure, then, alternates between the present time, in which Hawley and his preteen daughter Loo settle in Olympus, Massachusetts, the same town where Loo's long-dead mother had grown up, and the past — starting before Hawley even met Loo's mother and progressing through his many encounters with flying bullets, gaping holes and gushing blood. Along the way, there's plenty of violence — but also a touching portrait of parental tenderness, a young girl coming of age in her own violent and forgiving way, and the closeness of a community often at odds with itself.
Living in Anchor Point
"When Loo was 12 years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun." Thus begins this epic story, which, five years later, ends with — readers will not be surprised — the shooting of guns.
For years, Hawley's "work" and his things-gone-wrong flights take him to many parts of the country, including Alaska. In that one very-dramatic chapter, about halfway through the book, Hawley and Loo's mother (pregnant with Loo) live in Anchor Point. "Since she got pregnant, Lily's mind had been full of monsters, and yet she never seemed bothered by her dreams — the three-headed dogs, the bulls with red eyes, the packs of man-eating horses. She drew them in her notebook and then they were gone from her life. But each time Hawley snuck a look at those pages, he felt like he was reading his future."
In that chapter, Hawley accepts a "job" in Cordova. When he gets there, he drives out to Childs Glacier. "The parking lot was deserted, so he made his way toward the marked trail. There were several signs about grizzly bears and another that warned people about tidal waves. Hawley stepped from the tree line down a deep slope. From there he could see the glacier, looming on the opposite shore."
The glacier subsequently plays a significant role in what goes wrong, in this chapter, titled "Bullet Number Six."
Readers also learn, in the Alaska chapter, what a clepsydra is (an ancient time-measuring device powered by a flow of water; also known as a water clock). Clocks, along with stars, provide significant imagery throughout the novel.
Tinti has all the right moves for a first-rate novelist. Her characters are well-drawn and interesting. (Here's Lily when Hawley first sees her in a diner: "… the girl read the menu and then she kicked off her high heels and started spinning around and around on the stool.")
Her plot moves right along, with action on every page. Her prose is beautifully descriptive, often lyrical. "Hawley's body recognized every turn, like a well-worn path — the adrenaline, the heat of his shoulders working, the shifting of weight, the tumble of skin and hair, the blows to the ribs, the ache of breathing, the familiar sensation of his knuckles crunching, and it felt wonderful, the flood of it like some smooth, dark air flowing from a deep cavern."
Optioned for a film
If the plot of "The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley" sometimes seems ridiculously implausible or its characters very slow to see what's coming — well, those are times to just be carried along by the imaginative nature of it all. This is the story of a hero's journey, not to be mistaken for real life — even as real beauty, real emotions and real ideas about the strengths of families are examined. As Joseph Campbell, the author of the classic, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," has said, "Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed."
Readers will not be surprised to learn that Tinti's novel has already been optioned for a film. The elements of popular movies — all that gunfighting; action scenes in cars, boats, and crashing waves; fast-paced dialogue; quirky characters; and love stories — are everywhere on display here. There are subplots, including one involving efforts to stop whaling and overfishing in the North Atlantic. There's also the central mystery: How did Loo's mother die? And why does that bear rug keep reappearing?
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming." Her new novel "pH" is due in September.