On an unreasonably hot April afternoon in New York City, Ethan Hawke pulls up his blue shirt to show that the black T underneath has "Central Park Carousel" written on it. The merry-go-round is hallowed by fans of The Catcher in the Rye because of its place in J.D. Salinger's classic. Of course, it's also a fun place for four year olds.
"I took my daughter here the other day," says the thirty-one-year-old father, a native Texan who's fallen hard for Gotham, "and I had to buy this shirt." Hawke's work onscreen, where he's best known for playing pensive characters, belies the wound-up presence of a guy who occasionally hops out of his chair, or starts to disrobe, to illustrate a point. The shirt he's showing off is evidence that he has a serious case of Salingerphilia.
In fact, Hawke's first important foray into writing was a high school effort with the long-winded, Salingeresque title "There are two kinds of people in the world: assholes and phonies. I like to think of myself as an asshole." Hawke wrote it when he was sixteen, just after reading Catcher. At the time, his mom had threatened to ground him if his grades didn't improve, and they hadn't. Hawke suggested positive motivation might help. He offered the idea that she should let him go to Europe by himself if he made the honor roll. She accepted. To raise his dismal across-the-board grade point average at his high school in Princeton, New Jersey, Hawke tried for gains even in a class in which he was already doing well: He proposed to his English teacher that he'd write an extra-credit short story, and if she loved it, she would give him a 100 percent for his average in her class. She liked the proposal. More important, he says, she loved the story.
That teacher's encouragement, he says, made a great impression on Hawke--changed his life, in fact, because it got him hooked on writing.
"At a real pivotal moment," he says, "if the right person literally stops you and tells you that you're good at something, you kind of believe them. And then you pursue it." While acting would pay off for Hawke soon enough, literature would always remain fundamental.
SOAK IT UP
Fifteen years after writing the short story, the Salinger influence is still there. With little provocation, Hawke recites the first few paragraphs of Catcher. He memorized the first twenty pages. He would still likely prefer to be considered an asshole than a phony. He admits that he uses the word "corny" all the time. His new novel--his second--features a self-deprecating young protagonist who sometimes sounds like Holden's older cousin moved to the edge of the new millennium: "I thought maybe someday I'd be in a Dairy Queen," Jimmy Heartsock Jr. says in Ash Wednesday, "and some bonzo lunatic would whip out an automatic and start wasting people, and I'd be the one guy there who'd be able to stop him, who'd show some signs of personal heroism or integrity."
Still, the Caulfieldisms, which Hawke says he tries to excise from his writing when he sees them, are these days tempered with a lot of other influences. Hawke, who didn't finish college either of the times he started it--he enrolled first at Carnegie Mellon, then at New York University (he left NYU to star in White Fang)--has shown a zealot's fervor in his self-education. He travels, he acts, he directs, he writes. Over the years, he's done a better job of picking friends to talk with than picking hit movies to star in, and seems just fine with that. An intellectual sponge, he's soaked up philosophy and writing ranging from the Beats to Buddhism and from Thomas Merton to David Foster Wallace. He borrowed the title Ash Wednesday from T.S. Eliot because of one line in Eliot's poem of the same name: "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still." He says it really moved him. "I thought, Boy that's the line that should be written on my wall. …