Once--nearly 20 years ago--John Hawkes, through his singular talent, held a singular, vital position in modern American fiction. Since then, however, he has become not a great novelist but a maker of limp travesties (The Blood Oranges a travesty of Ford, The Passion Artist of Kafka), books so stilted in their rhetorical eroticism that they are headache-inducing echo chambers. And this new work--modeled on the writings of the Marquis de Sade--is his weakest yet. In 1945, an eleven-year-old girl named Virginie is taken under the wing of a Parisian taxi-driver named Bocage after Virginie's flower-seller mother is paralyzed and stricken mute. Bocage also rounds up four whores, an older married woman (and her husband), plus a giant of a tramp named Lulu--and all proceed to act out various ""charades of love."" Then: a flashback to 1740, to a chateau in the French countryside--where Seigneur, a nobleman (echoing Story of 0.), creates perfect courtesans while keeping an earlier incarnation of Virginie around to observe the lessons. The verbal lessons go something like this: ""There comes to all of us that day when in the midst of bliss the merest fragment of memory slips into view and beckons. Our lips are moist with the taste of our lover's desire to please and with our own; the birds of blue glass are poised on twigs that do not bend; sensuality reigns in the land of love."" Even more puerile are the practical physical lessons: the seduction of two whippets, of pigs (cruelty toward animals plays an ever more obscure role in Hawkes' private circus); fellatio in the confessional; a nun who makes permanent, feathered G-strings. And all of this is rendered so mincingly, self-consciously--dirty writing has rarely been so un-dirty--that it lacks any quality beyond that of form: Hawkes seems even more jaded and exhausted than Sade at his most blasÃ‰. Hopelessly dull mock-pornography--from a writer who used to be, in the days of The Lime Twig and Second Skin, anything but dull.