The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Guns, a girl, and her bullet-scarred father are at the heart of Hannah Tinti’s newest novel. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley centers around a little girl (Loo) and her widowed father as he attempts to live life on the more straight and narrow. Hawley displays a portable shrine to his dead wife in their motel bathrooms as they move from place to place, and Loo only knows her mother through these relics (shampoo bottles, conditioner, and a tube of lipstick). Mabel Ridge (Lily’s mother and Loo’s grandmother) is one of Hawley’s staunchest critics, adding to the mystery surrounding Lily’s death. When the nomadic pair settle in Olympus, MA, Lily’s hometown, Hawley finds that he has more than one detractor and an uphill battle to cleaning the slate and starting over. The book progresses in a patterned way. We travel Hawley’s life through flashback, one bullet-wound at a time, discovering his criminal past. These flashbacks (all of the lives of Hawley) are interspersed with the current story of Hawley and Loo, father and daughter, until Loo is seventeen-years-old.

Lara: I had no awareness of Hannah Tinti before our Changing Hands (awesome indie bookstore) First Draft Book Club selected The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley for its June book club. But then life got all life-y and I wasn’t able to read it or attend the discussion. But I heard really good things about it and was excited when we chose it for our August column. Plus, the book is so pretty.

I was pulled in from the get go. Especially with this opener:

“When Loo was twelve-years-old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.”

Jennifer: Actually, I thought the writing in this book was top-notch. I’m not sure I was always enraptured—still processing why—but I loved the sentences, the writing. Consider this passage when Loo rises up against a bully:

“Loo picked up a piece of driftwood and staggered after Marshall Hicks. She knocked the boy unconscious. Then she chose his index finger and bent it backward until it broke. With this snap of bone she sealed her fear away, like sliding a cover over a barrel and nailing the lid shut.”

I love that last sentence.

What did you like best about this book?

Lara: I loved the sentences too, but probably most of all, I love the motley cast of characters. There’s obviously Hawley and Loo. And then there is Jove (Hawley’s long-time partner in crime), Mary Titus (a neighboring environmentalist and whackadoo), her son (and Loo’s eventual love interest, Marshall Hicks), and Lily. I loved Loo and Hawley, and I thought Tinti captured their relationship, which was fraught with fierce devotion, beautifully:

“All this time he had been watching her window, it had never occurred to him that she was watching for him, too. He could hear Loo’s breath, heavy and expectant, blowing hard into the mouthpiece, and for a moment all he could think of was the sound of the whale’s spout—the blast of air and water as the giant rose to the surface, the salted spray that had rained down upon him in Puget Sound and filled him with terror and longing and a sense that he could right the path he was on. He had not realized that he’d been waiting for this sound until he heard it. He knew only that he had been waiting–for something that had never arrived, that had failed him, that had made him rage and murder in the silence it had left. But now here it was again. His daughter, still breathing. And so was he.”

Jennifer: I agree. The characters were very well-drawn and unique too.

Lara: We get to watch Loo grow up. Her father’s past has an impact on her present in the small town of Olympus, MA where the nomadic pair finally settle. Loo struggles to make friends and quickly becomes the verbal and physical target of bullies. Both of us were struck by the dynamics of Marshall and Loo’s initial relationship. Marshall was at the cusp of popularity when his friendship with Loo was discovered. In order to protect his rising social status, Marshall followed her home from school, pushed her to the ground, ripped her sandals off her feet, and threw them into the ocean. Loo retrieved her shoes and emerged from the waves a different person.

“She was no longer afraid.”

And the passage that you quoted earlier follows. She returned to school the next day and beat the shit out of the other boys that had been bullying her. Hawley was not happy, mainly because she got caught.

So, I have to ask: was Hawley a good father? Was a he a good influence?

Jennifer: I think he was a good father in that he loved his daughter, genuinely. He wanted what is best for her. From the beginning. Some of the most touching scenes were the flashbacks to Loo’s infancy—when Lily was still alive. Hawley actually doesn’t feel much for the baby. He tries to muster up that father-feeling, and it’s not so easy. But then, when the you-know-what hits the fan, fatherhood kicks in. I never doubted his love for his child.

But the truth is that this book is the re-telling of an old story: crime doesn’t pay. Violence begets violence.

In this, he’s not a good father. His past will ruin her life. There’s a great moment when Loo realizes the truth about her father. They’re stealing a car and Hawley wants to make it look like it was done by a professional:

“Loo watched him shoulder the rifle and understood, in a flickering moment, that her father was exactly that—a professional. All the guns in their house. All the scars on his body. All the ways that he was careful. It was because of this.”

What do you think of his role as dad?

Lara: I agree with you. But I also think he doesn’t know any other way. And despite everything that he does to separate himself from his previous life, it will—of course it will—come back to haunt him.

Let’s talk about Lily. We don’t meet her until bullet four.

“The door opened, chiming the bell, and a girl walked into the diner. She was in her twenties, with dark hair and a narrow waist and a pair of hips that she nearly had to turn sideways to fit through the entryway… She walked through the diner, swinging one hip and then the other, and then she slid those same hips over the edge of a stool by the counter, right next to Hawley.”

There’s some flirtatious interaction and then Ed King—a bad guy from Hawley’s circle of bad guys— shows up and some shit goes down. While a lot of women would have walked away at this point, Lily doesn’t. What did you think of Lily and her story?

Jennifer: I liked Lily. I thought their love story was very engaging. It’s also intensified because she dies. Who knows how wondrous and perfect it would’ve been, had they stuck together through the years.

Did you think all of the colorful characters add to the novel in any particular way? Who interested you the most?

Lara: Absolutely, Mabel Ridge and Mary Titus were constant critics and seemed to be looking to catch Hawley in a bad way. Then you have Loo and Marshall launch into a romantic relationship—yes, the same Marshall who bullied Loo and she then broke his finger—”

Jennifer: By the way, I love when Marshall tells her, “A dead parent doesn’t make you special. It just makes you sad.”

Lara: I loved that too. The writing and all of these dynamics created depth and interest. As annoying as Mary Titus was, as bitter as Mabel Ridge was, I liked their roles in the story. I think one of Tinti’s strengths is creating likeability in flawed characters. Hawley, despite having a violent past, full of bad choices, is a highly likeable character.

Jennifer: I think that’s very true. Hawley is likeable for sure.

Lara: What did you think of the way Tinti architected the story between alternating chapters of the past and present?

Jennifer: I liked it, but for some reason I was less interested in the flashbacks than the current story, even though the backstory was entirely necessary. I don’t know. The repetition of form got mildly, mildly “boring.” I hesitate to use that word because I think, overall, it’s a very good book. And I’m pro-structure (whatever that means). Pardon me for this TV reference: my husband and I are currently binging on “Call the Midwife.” (Our binge means one episode a night.) But the show is pretty much always the same thing: poor, troubled pregnant Londoners meet up with nuns and midwives, and have babies. That said, it’s pretty good. I’m just mildly distracted by the obviousness of the pattern. Do you agree or disagree?

Lara: There was some repetitiveness to the backstory in that you always knew that, however it started, it was going to end with a bullet in or grazing Hawley. But I really liked that it was through those chapters that we got to see Hawley’s humanity. He had much more empathy than I think a lot of people would have expected someone like him to have. He was the criminal with the heart of gold. Thankfully, Tinti is a strong writer. In other hands, it would have come of reading like a Lifetime Movie script.

Jennifer: One thing I wanted to ask you about is your response when, in conversation, I mentioned that I wasn’t fully engaged. You said something like, “Well, it isn’t as literary as you like, but . . . “ and I love this part: “ . . . since I know you are in a book club that reads Jodi Picoult, I don’t feel as bad recommending this book.”

For the record, Hannah Tinti is Tolstoy compared to Picoult.

But what did you mean by that?

Lara: You aren’t going to like what I have to say here. I find that you don’t like to consume books, movies, or television unless it qualifies as ART  (purposefully ALL CAPS) to you. And I wasn’t sure if Hawley would pass your test. For the record, I do not have a good definition of literary fiction versus plain old regular fiction. I think this is really well written and I connected with it in a lot of different ways. I am glad you enjoyed it as much as you did. For the record part two, I enjoy Picoult. We don’t need to go there. There’s enough room at the reading table for all types of books and readers.

Speaking of Tolstoy…I put some big girl pants on and I am reading Anna Karenina. Can you believe it?

Jennifer: I’m in shock right now. I was all set to go ballistic on Picoult and then you drop this Anna Karenina bomb. Damn, girlfriend!

Anna Karenina aside (I still think of Levin!), Picoult forever aside for me, I’m fine with your answer because you’re entirely right. I have absolutely no desire to consume any book, movie, or TV show unless it qualifies as ART. No desire. That said, Art might be Judd Apatow or Django Unchained or “The Muppet Show.”

However, Tinti is firmly entrenched in literary fiction. Her artistic merit was never doubted. I’ll give you a textbook definition of literary fiction, and contrast it with genre fiction—our readers probably want to know, as well. Literary fiction is character-oriented, while genre fiction is plot-driven. That’s pretty much it. Hawley is all character. Not to pick on her or anything, but Picoult’s Small, Great Things was plot-driven; most characters were stereotypes. Stephen King kinda crosses the line. Both literary and genre fiction writers claim him.

I loved The Hunger Games, though. Not sure what to make of that.

Lara: I think it means to be more open to what you read, or consider reading.

I was so super engrossed in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley that it didn’t occur to me that Bullet Twelve would not just be the end of the bullets, but very likely the end of Hawley. I was surprised by how much this realization shook me. I don’t want to give anything away, but we should talk about the ending and whether or not we think it worked.

Jennifer: Yeah, let’s avoid spoilers this time. As you might expect, I didn’t love the end. It’s hard not to give it away, but I wanted it to go one step further. I like strong resolution. I think the writing at the end was very lovely. What did you think?

Lara: I thought the writing at the end was beautiful. I am also okay with endings that might not be so clear-cut. I would love to hear other thoughts on what people thought of the book and, in particular, the ending. If you have read this book, chime in with your comments. If you haven’t, pick up a copy and stop back by.

What I know for sure is that I will be reading more of Hannah Tinti’s work.

Next Up!

In September we are tackling last year’s Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Until then… happy reading Snotties!



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