How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins

It’s unfortunate that “adult entertainment” has become synonymous with porn, because there’s a shortage of the real thing. By that, I mean books and films for grown-ups. Not only about sex, but about the multitude of other concerns that mature people care about. These people know that there is more to life than celebrities, shopping and getting skinny. Or having to choose between zombies and vampires.

Margaret Hawkins’ How To Survive a Natural Disaster (Permanent Press, 199 pages) confidently embraces this fact and offers a literary novel that is both sophisticated and accessible and, in the end, is probably best described, for lack of a better label, as adult entertainment. She shows that it is time to reclaim the term.

It is the story of an alarming extended family in the Chicago suburbs and their adoption of a young Peruvian girl named Esmeralda, who silently witnesses the lies which allow the family to function. Using short chapters and multiple points of view, the novel demonstrates how foolish or terrible actions can appear quite appealing or reasonable to the people perpetrating them. Families can be, indeed, a “natural disaster.”

The father figure in the household, Craig, narrates his sections with a mixture of frankness and narcissism; the mother, Roxanne, with intelligence and neediness; the grieving, agoraphobic neighbor Phoebe, who in spite of herself becomes a surrogate member of the family, with sadness and wit. Humor and pain intermingle. Hawkins displays a near pitch-perfect ear in capturing so many voices, and so convincingly. For some readers, the multiple viewpoints will be confusing at first, and some of the bolder strokes, such as including sections told by the dog, Mr. Cosmo, might initially seem like a stunt; but by the end of the novel, these choices seem quite justified. Unlike Lorrie Moore’s recent A Gate at the Stairs, which is also about adoption, there is room for many voices, many mental worlds, so the various characters do more than set up a main narrator’s punch lines. That is what makes How To Survive a Natural Disaster so adult: it knows that there is more to being wise than sounding smart.

Here, for instance, Craig describes his effort to boost his creativity:

“I was cruising galleries one Saturday morning when I saw Marjorie McCartney’s new shotgun paintings. Now there’s someone whose career had definitely taken off. I knew her in grad school, nice-looking girl. Her thing was painting on metal and for years she’d been stomping on her paintings in stiletto heels but lately she’d started shooting holes in them. I have to say it intrigued me, in the usual way girls with guns did of course, but in other ways too. My work had gotten too safe, too domestic-looking. I wanted to bust it up.

“I thought about it a few weeks and then one day on the way home from work I took a detour past Wal-Mart and picked up a nice little .22. Revolver. Single barrel. My little secret. Two weeks later I went back and bought another one, bigger this time, a .32. I figured I’d want different size holes.

“When Roxanne was at work and the girls were at school I’d go to the target range in Waukegan and shoot rounds. It felt good. My plan was to drive up to Wisconsin as soon as I could figure out a time I wouldn’t be missed and go into the deep woods and shoot up a series of metal plates I’d bought on Maxwell Street for almost nothing. I’d already enameled them, smooth and beautiful. It would hurt to mess them up, but that was the idea.”

Craig’s project, which he plans to call Girls I’ve Known, is derivative and immature, and its eventual unintended consequences are much worse. Art is more than such gimmicks, Hawkins suggests, and her story constitutes a refusal to give in to short-cuts.

So, yes, an entertaining novel can also be rather serious, which shouldn’t be a surprise. But, if it seems atypical, it is not only the fault of commercial vulgarians and other usual suspects, many of whom are straw men. How many serious novels are, well, entertaining? How many metafictional games à la Paul Auster or high church cultural memoirs à la Azar Nafisi can a reader be expected to absorb before longing for something else?

How To Survive a Natural Disaster grasps this problem and, without mincing or apology, presses forward. In this respect, it is symptomatic of where contemporary literary fiction will have to go, if it is going to go anywhere.

Charles Holdefer, author of The Contractor (2007), Nice (2001), and Apology for Big Rod (1997).

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