Actor Ethan Hawke, grimacing from the back cover of "The Hottest State," looks like he means well. He's probably trying really hard. And if he keeps at it a little longer, he might almost write a good book. But this one isn't it.
"The Hottest State," Hawke's debut novel, is very bad indeed. It does, however, get snaps for brevity. Weighing in at a mere 192 pages, it guarantees that those who are fans enough of young Mr. Hawke's cinematic oeuvre to consume his literary output won't have to spend too much time wading through it.
"Hottest" is the story of six months in the life of an up-and-coming twentyish actor in Manhattan, and of his highly dysfunctional relationship with a struggling singer/songwriter. Narrator William spent his formative years in Texas, which is like, maybe the hottest state, where his parents married too young and then split up. Now he's a disaffected guy who's angry at the world but he needs some love, you know? William's an asshole, and even though every now and then you get a vague sense that Hawke knows he's an asshole, that doesn't quite change William into a likable asshole.
He falls for Sarah, who was clearly valediction of the "I-love-you-please-leave-me-alone-I'm-scared-hold-me-no-just-let-me-be-free- oh-you'll-never-understand" School of Dating for Artsy Girls. She walks around in the rain without an umbrella and doesn't understand her mom, while William smashes chairs and gets headaches because "there was so much color in the room." Together they do kooky stuff like have sex in bathrooms, but mostly they spend a lot of time examining the relationship. Eventually, they part, and he feels bad, but then he realizes it's all okay, right?
"I like to embrace the clichi," William tells Sarah. And page after page, he makes good on that claim, tiring the pants off any reader who's progressed past the point in life of coupling in unfurnished apartments and meeting disapproving parents. There's no law that says love stories about young people are inherently uninteresting to those outside the demo -- "Romeo and Juliet" holds up pretty well, after all -- but Hawke's characters are the kind of people you'd meet at a party and forget about before the dip had run out -- all of which makes "The Hottest State" pretty damn tepid.