Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke

“Tell me what company you keep, and I’ll tell you what you are.
— Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha

The opening chapter of Ethan Hawke’s Ash Wednesday is a heart-stopping few pages with male protagonist Jimmy Heartsock thrown head first into a character-defining moment, and it’s something he was never supposed to experience. His exchange with the mother of a dead Private leaves him emotionally wounded and physically stunned, laying the groundwork for his role in the story. Jimmy’s a guy thrust into real life, and even at the age of 30, he’s anything but ready for the responsibilities of manhood.

Enter Christy, the woman Jimmy dumps prior to finding out she’s pregnant. After a swift re-evaluation of his life following his tragic experience with the aforementioned mother, he figures he must get Christy back. After all, he loves her and was an idiot for letting her go in the first place. But, he’s too late. She is moving back home to escape all that is not working out in her life; including him. Even so, Jimmy decides he will stop at nothing to rekindle their romance, even it means going AWOL from the army and driving his beat up Chevy from Albany to Fort Worth. Christy, however, just wants to put her New York experience behind her, to raise her child and get on with life before it slips away from her. She’s sure it’s the right decision . . . maybe.

The story of Jimmy and Christy is a simple one — star-crossed lovers unsure of their own destinies, entering adulthood less than prepared. What allows Hawke’s effort to stand out from the masses of other books on the subject, is his obvious understanding of confused devotion and the havoc it plays on the psyche of the young adult. Growing up can be frightening, one minute we feel fancy-free and ready to take on the world, and the next school is done, work sucks, and the complaints come rolling in that no-one ever told us it was gonna be this tough.

What’s tough around the 20-25 mark is trying to decipher if we have crossed that “adulthood” line, and, if we haven’t where is it, and how do we know when we do cross it? Is it an age? A feeling? Or our status as new members of the 9-5 crowd? For Jimmy, the line appears for him when he realizes his love of Christy is something more than of the skirt-chasing variety, and for Christy, it’s her pregnancy. The two have major boulders to stumble over, and their road-trip together, with eventful stops in Ohio and New Orleans, is their time to throw away their emotional baggage and start fresh. As adults. Because, you know, maybe we cross the line when we realize we’re in love, the real kind.

Hawke’s grasp of the angst-ridden-and-cynical-but-meant-for-each-other 20-something couple was exhibited in his debut novel, The Hottest State featuring characters remarkable similar to Jimmy and Christy — William with absent father-issues, less than excited at the idea of growing up and Sarah, the smart and sensual one, odd-looking yet perfect (this time with father issues rather than Sarah’s mother-issues). And, also like Sarah and William, Jimmy and Christy, for the most part, are believable and engaging characters.

To make them so, Hawke has divided his book into chapters with alternating fist-person narratives — Jimmy reaches a point in the couple’s story before Christy’s voice takes over. It’s a simple and cleverly executed idea, with the characters able to give full insight into their own hopes and emotions, and, especially, the way they feel about each other. Hawke allows the characters to act and react to each other so that the reader clearly knows why they do what they do, and is left to patiently wait for Jimmy and Christy to clue in as well.

Hawke’s writing style is enjoyably easy. His prose moves deftly back and forth from serious to comic, and his dialogue is often dead-on. Sometimes, he even pulls out a line worthy of highlighter-pen-book-damage, such as this one from Christy:

“What had I done? I was going to be a mother. Everything was getting so serious. I felt like the real me was sitting in a bar somewhere doing shots.”

Or this one from Jimmy:

“There was no fantasy better than right now. Life would no longer be defined by the maybes ? maybe at this party I will meet the love of my life, maybe at this new job I will be introduced to my soul mate, maybe that girl behind me on the train will be my blazing eternal love. No, my blazing eternal love is sleeping in the car right beside me with ludicrously large feet, my eternal love is four months pregnant and addicted to ice munching, and my love wants to know why I’m having such a problem maturing.”

Though Hawke often expertly captures some charming and lush moments, Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be a great work of literary genius (as some of his “But, he’s a Hollywood pretty boy!” detractors seem to think), just an uncomplicated tale of the tribulations of young people in love. Objective achieved.