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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti


Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane find their contemporary spirit animals in Samuel and Loo Hawley, the father and daughter whose exploits are captured with bloody theatricality in Hannah Tinti’s sophomore novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.

Or perhaps the Hawleys are a latter-day Bonnie and Clyde, Loo the product of an outlaw’s education. She has inherited her father’s inclination to meet obstacles with a set of fists, and resilience is also a family trait: for a girl to survive an early life that is both motherless and rootless requires rare fortitude. For his part, the elder Hawley boasts a virtual superpower – by the conclusion of this tale he will have been shot on a dozen occasions, not always by other people.

It’s a tough and lonely life. The death of Lily, Hawley’s beloved, when the couple’s daughter was an infant is a bland fact made ghoulish by the makeshift shrine Hawley carries like a nomad. He installs the few images and scraps of paper recording her existence in the bathrooms of the homes he and Loo move into every few months. Loo has never known him to show interest in another woman, and the frequent glances thrown his way are rebuffed without a word. Isolation is safety and they owe nothing to anyone: “Don’t start saying you’re sorry,” Hawley instructs his daughter, “or you’ll be saying it for the rest of your life.”

Tinti’s action scenes contain multitudes. They are distinguished by unusual sincerity and seriousness, in part because of the stakes – should Hawley succumb to a bullet, Loo is alone in the world but for her maternal grandmother, Mabel Ridge, who “rammed her hardness into others, like an oil tanker barreling through a fleet of rowboats.”

Mabel explicitly hates Hawley, and loans her granddaughter a Pontiac Firebird only to report it stolen. Loo is better off with Marshall Hicks, the only one of her classmates who isn’t put off by “the scent of her strangeness.” She breaks his finger, but he doesn’t hold a grudge.

If taken alone, Hawley’s story would be one of hopelessness and misdirection. He is filled with regret and not a little anger, his lack of agency (in a career of card-sharking, robberies and “retrievals” of sought-after goods) a tide he cannot turn: “The bad luck had gone on so long now he felt marked, like a smudge had been left on his forehead.” That saying about happenstance, coincidence and divine intervention must apply here – who gets shot over and over again by accident? – and the very act of receiving a bullet, the passage of metal through flesh, starts to feel as sacramental as the rites administered to tiny Loo, baptized at her mother’s insistence.

Even at its greatest extremity, with Hawley sitting in a motel bathroom with a gunshot foot, wishing he could erase his life – from his father’s death to “every bullet, every twisted turn of the road he’d followed”, meeting Lily, having Loo – The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley eschews nihilism and embraces the restless, pioneering spirit of a modern Western. Tinti controls mood and momentum like a master, and idyllic scenes turn nasty as quickly and easily as clouds passing across the sun. Stories this well told, this hungry for originality, are rare, and should not be missed.

Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

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