Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti is an adventure epic of literary suspense that follows the relationship of a low-level criminal father and his beloved daughter.
Survival, as it plays out in Hannah Tinti’s Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, is not a one-time lucky feat. In this, Tinti’s second novel, we learn and learn again that surviving the near-impossible once might not be something to cheer for as a lucky escape. It may merely set you up for the next day, the next near-miss and potentially worse. Dark and philosophical, when you look at it that way, but this book is a finely tuned rollercoaster.
In Hawley, we find a strapping, livewire protagonist—a low-level criminal who, like a cat with 33% worse luck, may have 12 lives to burn in his dangerous line of work. But burn them he does, in more and ever bigger ways.
We are pinned to his side throughout, from his young shiftless days as he works smalltime knock-overs to his years of reckoning and high-stakes faceoffs. And we are pinned, too, to the side of Loo, his daughter, who grows up watching him doing only what he knows—as if it’s normal—and eventually starts to question the foundations of her own upbringing.
Hawley’s risky past crops up in an intermittent sequence, each a scene that flashes back to every bullet wound he has survived. The dangers, the relentless adversaries, and the natural wonders he sees from the edge get bigger as we go. Tinti, who is the co-founder and executive editor of the literary magazine One Story, makes these scenes punch like standalone short stories; humor, situational despair, and eye-popping circumstances are frequent bedfellows, as in this chase scene where Hawley, who has just been shot in the shoulder, attempts to escape with accomplice Jove from a waterfront gunfight by boat across Puget Sound:
Hawley tried to clear some distance from shore, then steered them to right, wondering how far the property ran, imagining Talbot chasing alongside.
A series of waves came in from the channel, hit starboard and set them rocking. Jove gripped the sides of the boat with his blistered hands. “I thought your father was a fisherman.”
“He was,” said Hawley.
“Then why the hell didn’t he teach you swim?”
He didn’t know how, either.”
“Jesus, doesn’t anybody do their jobs right anymore?”
Hawley didn’t tell Jove the reason his father had never learned to swim. It was so he would drown quickly if his boat went down in a storm. So he wouldn’t flail and suffer for hours alone in the sea.
The dinghy hit the rolling wake of a container ship, the bow rising and falling hard. Hawley kept his eye on Mount Rainier. The snow held the shape of the mountain like a blanket covering a body. Haley pointed the boat directly into the waves. He felt dizzy again, and couldn’t tell if it was from the whiskey or the drugs or the bullet that had passed through him.
Minutes later, the Sound opens up.
A spray blasted, hissing not thirty feet away. Hawley immediately ducked down, thinking it was Talbot after all. Then the boat began to pitch and Jove started making a noise in the back of his throat, like he was going to be sick. … And from this open place, the whale appeared—rising like a dark and crusted slice of doom, only ten feet away from the boat.
Every illuminating, seemingly life-changing moment like this from Hawley’s life weighs in the absence for Loo, who doesn’t know—isn’t allowed to know—her father’s stories but sees his resulting skittishness, his volatility, and the ragged reputation he’s picked up around town. Her own ways have been shaped by Hawley too—just like knowing the milk lives in the fridge, Loo knows the whereabouts of all the guns in the house and how to rig and unrig them.
And for Loo, one missing piece of the story is the loss of her mother, reported to have drowned in murky circumstances when Loo was a newborn. Hawley turns the bathroom into an ongoing shrine to Lily, full of photos and old shampoo. As an emotionally trip-wired center of their turbulent life, the bathroom is also where we see Loo’s own rising propensity for violence. Mary Titus, a local environmental activist and mother to Loo’s friend Marshall, comes to the Hawleys collecting petition signatures and starts to laugh at the bathroom shrine.
Loo watched as her own hands went up and shoved the widow hard. Mary Titus fell backward into the tub, her short legs kicking the air, her body twisting and her skull cracking against the faucet. The widow’s eyes fluttered for a moment before she sat up and touched the back of her head. Her fingers came away crimson, the same color as the ancient lipstick on the counter.
Perhaps unavoidably, the book reads this year as a marked examination of gun culture—when every bullet-hole has a story, and many stories can rest in one person. If it explores this, it does no vilifying of it but walks around in the lives of this father and daughter who, for different reasons, have not questioned the presence of guns in their lives. Wider than this theme, though, runs violence and the surviving of it—not surviving a brief flirtation with danger but withstanding patterns of hurt and their repercussions through generations.