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Tucson Weekly Fiction Burn

Actor Ethan Hawke's debut novel is a pornographic tour de force.

By James DiGiovanna

The Hottest State, by Ethan Hawke (Vintage Contemporaries). Paper, $11.

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  SUPPOSE YOU WANT to be a nuclear physicist but, unfortunately, were born with a natural propensity to become an investment banker. Temporarily resigning yourself to this fate, you quickly become one of the hottest young investment bankers in America. Now, having a cadre of young investment-banker groupies, you utilize your new power to break into your chosen field, leveraging your assets, as it were, to find a position as a nuclear physicist. Without giving up your job as an investment banker (you still have to pay the rent, of course) you can now proudly show your friends your particle accelerator, white-coated assistants and gleaming new laboratory. Most importantly, now you can say, "I'm a nuclear physicist!"

Hot young actor Ethan Hawke's first novel, The Hottest State, is mostly reminiscent of what used to pass for literary writing in the 1980s: a first person narrative of a vapid young man living in New York City, told without allusion, metaphor or self-reference. Essentially, the kind of airport-novel-taken-as-art for which Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis were once praised, and then later reviled.

When reviewing a book by an actor, it seems proper to note that it's "surprisingly competent" or to include something that translates into "oddly, it doesn't completely suck!" In fact, it doesn't completely suck: It only partially sucks. A few--but only a few--Introduction to Writing 101 errors slipped by the editor: prose like the redundant, "It was a surprisingly good connection...I could hear her clearly"; and the hackneyed, "no matter where she was or what she was doing she looked lost." And the story, also, is a bit pedestrian.

It concerns a 20-year-old boy who, while well-versed in the ways of sex (who could expect less in a first person narrative from the foxy Hawke?), is experiencing love for the first time in the form of a woman who'll fool around with him, but not let him put it in. While the psychological implications are fairly obvious, this circumstance does provide the novel's main attraction; and despite all its literary flaws, I did find it a compelling read, perhaps solely for this reason: It's loaded with hot sex scenes, and one can't help but imagine the extremely attractive Mr. Hawke engaged in all manner of naked frolicking. If you've seen a couple of his movies, you're pre-programmed with the visuals necessary to make this a pornographic tour de force.

It's also a mercifully quick read, and perhaps amusing in the way that genre fiction can be. Still, the main character is so pathetic, and his whining becomes so grating, that the latter part of the book (after he's lost the girl) is largely lacking in charm. The final, teary scene, wherein Hawke becomes dangerously cute by having his narrator weep while reading a story to a classroom full of preschoolers, is indeed way too much; but at least the reader is spared this level of manipulation until the very end, when the book can be conveniently flung into that cozy fire. One can then truly say that Hawke's The Hottest State burns with a color and brilliance worthy of one of America's sexiest young stars.

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